Brown v. Kendall

60 Mass. 292 (1850).

One-Sentence Takeaway: One of the first cases in which the court applied the “reasonable person” standard for negligence by holding that the plaintiff could not recover unless he could show that defendant’s act which injured plaintiff was either intended to cause the harm or was the result of the defendant’s failure to use ordinary care.

Summary: Plaintiff and Defendant’s dogs were fighting, and Defendant was hitting dogs with stick in an attempt to break up the fight.  Plaintiff was looking on at a distance, and then the dogs approached where the Plaintiff was standing.  Defendant with his back facing Plaintiff raised stick over his head to hit the dogs, and accidentally hit Plaintiff in the eye causing injury.  The trial court instructed the jury that if parting the dogs was not a necessary act, then Defendant was responsible for the consequences of the blow unless he was in the exercise of extraordinary care.  The judge instructed the jury that the burden of showing extraordinary care on the part of Defendant or want of ordinary care on the part of Plaintiff was on Defendant.  The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff and Defendant appealed.

The court of appeal reversed and ordered a new trial.  The court reasoned that Defendant could only be liable if he was at fault and fault was to be determined by whether or not Defendant was acting with “ordinary care and prudence,” a formulation of the reasonable person standard.  The court defined “reasonable care” as follows: “In using this term, ordinary care, it may be proper to state, that what constitutes ordinary care will vary with the circumstances of cases. In general, it means that kind and degree of care, which prudent and cautious men would use, such as is required by the exigency of the case, and such as is necessary to guard against probable danger.”

The court also determined that it was Plaintiff’s burden of proving that Defendant was not acting within the reasonable person standard of care.

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