The Hypothetical Reasonable Person In Self-Defense Cases

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One of the standards a person has to meet in order to justify an act of self-defense is whether a hypothetical “reasonable person” would have done the same thing in the same circumstances. Naturally, the exact wording of self-defense laws vary by state, but most mandate the standard that a person has to have a reasonable fear of death or severe injury if action isn’t taken, or if death or severe injury will be done to someone else.

Granted, this isn’t legal advice and should not be taken as such, but rather a discussion of publicly available information.

A Real Work Of Legal Fiction

Self Defense Law
The hypothetical reasonable person is a legal fiction, a hypothetical construct that’s actually necessary to determine whether an action (or an inaction) was appropriate or not. The principle is actually very old, as the “bonus paterfamilias” (good family father) was used in virtually the exact same fashion by the Romans.

There are other names that have been used throughout history for the same idea, such as “the man on the Clapham omnibus,” among others.

In essence, the principle is to be establish whether a hypothetically reasonable person would be reasonably expected to do the same thing as the person on trial, in the case of self-defense, or if a person would reasonably be expected to have provided a greater measure of care to avoid a certain outcome.

Say a hypothetical farmer piles hay near the barn and farmhouse in dry weather. Said hay is set afire by the exhaust of the farmer’s work truck, torching barn and house alike. The farmer’s insurance carrier has a clause in the contract mandating reasonable care be taken to prevent fires. They will want to know whether said pile of hay could have been stored better or further away to avoid the exact scenario. Would a reasonable person have stored the hay further away? Or piled it more densely or periodically wet it to avoid the same occurrence? In other words, was the reasonable standard of care that met?

In short, whether a hypothetical reasonable person would have done the same thing is the standard you’ll have to meet if on trial for a self-defense shooting.

Reasonable Self-Defense


Regarding self-defense, the actions a person takes has to satisfy the requirements of being “reasonable” in that a hypothetical normal person, with the same means at their disposal and in the same situation, would presumably do the exact same thing.

If a hypothetical person, armed with their concealed carry gun, is in line at the bank when a robber tries to hold the place up and shoots said robber ending their career of crime, would a reasonable person in the same position do the same thing? Ostensibly so; robbery is a terrible thing to do and certainly to subject people to. A reasonable person that has the means could very well be presumed to act in that circumstance.

However, say a hypothetical person arrives home, finding a burglar. The burglar bolts for the door. Say this hypothetical person is armed. Would a reasonable person, in these circumstances, fire on the burglar? This example involves a lot more “gray area” and as a result might not so easily result in avoiding charges being filed or, for that matter, an acquittal.

Perfect Self-Defense


A person who meets the reasonable man standard and who clearly acted to save their life or that of another within the bounds and scope of the law is what’s called “perfect self-defense.” Imperfect self-defense is a situation where a person honestly believed their life was in danger, but it wasn’t a reasonable belief. The latter can result in conviction, despite an earnest belief that one’s life was in danger.

What, though, is reasonable? The hypothetical reasonable person knows the law and is a totally model citizen. Such a person doesn’t get hyper-emotional and does the right thing at the right time all the time. That can be a high standard to meet.

It is better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6, but the “reasonable man” test is one of the things a person may have to deal with after the shot.