So, what’s “a reasonable person” to do?

It’s a good question because, for all the importance attached in law to the standard-of-care and reasonable-person concepts, there are few concrete examples to guide the design engineer. Concepts are nice – something conceived in the mind – but you got to get out of your head and get concrete – something characterized by actual things or events. (Ref. 1)

There are few concrete examples of the standard of care in Dr. Google or Wikipedia, nor in the engineering books, to guide the design engineer. (Ref. 2) There’s very little on when he should design above the minimum standard set by the National Building Code (NBC). (Ref. 3) Go read and see for yourself.

That’s what I learned during my research, prompted by realizing most engineers don’t even know about the standard of care. Then I wondered, how many look at the minimum requirements of the NBC and sometimes figure they’ve got to design to a higher standard? Then, I thought, how many civil litigation lawyers and claim adjusters know about these issues facing design engineers? Then I got scared and figured I’ve got to write about this – get it out in the open.


Before we go a bit further – just a bit, because I want to alert you to these issues not educate you – this is how these concepts are described in law dictionaries and Dr. Google:

The standard of care means “…the degree of care that a reasonable person should exercise” as put by Black’s Law Dictionary, 4th edition 2011. (Ref. 4)

Put another way in more detail, the level at which an ordinary, prudent professional with the same training and experience, in good standing, in a same or similar community would practice under the same or similar circumstances. (Ref. 5)

Or “… what is reasonable in the circumstances” according to Dr. Google. (Ref. 2)

A reasonable person according to Black is “… a person who exercises the degree of attention, knowledge, intelligence, and judgement that society requires of it’s members for the protection of their own and other’s interests. The reasonable person acts sensibly, does things without serious delay, and takes proper but not excessive precautions”.

Or, as put by Dr. Google “A person who is thought to be careful and considerate in their actions … the way a typical person with “ordinary prudence” would act”.


I’ve got queries out to two engineering friends, one who worked as a design engineer for many years and another who worked in construction. I asked each how often they came across situations where something more than the minimum NBC standard was in order. I’ll let you know when I hear back.

Like, for example, if designing to a factor of safety of three (3) is normal – the minimum? – are there times when it should be greater, perhaps (4)? Should a steel or concrete beam be deeper than normal, a column larger, a concrete slab thicker, a storm drainage pipe bigger?

Here’s a question: To what extent is a designer liable if he designs for the Code’s minimum standard – and goes happily on his way – when something higher is order? What’s the big deal, he met the NBC’s standards?

(A factor of safety of three (3) means something is designed three times stronger or bigger than it needs to be before it breaks or falls down)

I asked three other friends – two engineers and an oceanographer who investigated the cause of failures and accidents for years – about the standard of care and the reasonable person. They didn’t know about these concepts.


So, what’s a reasonable person in law or insurance to do about a situation like this? Hmmm? How about first asking your expert if they’re aware of these concepts. Then, depending on their answer ask how well their work would stand up to a peer review. If they’re important concepts in Law and Dr. Google, it seems they would be important concepts in the forensic investigation of a failure or accident.

And as you’re asking these questions, remember, there are no concrete examples in the engineering text books to guide the reasonable engineer on when to design to a higher standard than the NBC minimum.

(I may be out in left field a bit with some of these comments but if they stimulate thought about these concepts in the concrete world of engineering design, construction and forensic investigation then I’ve achieved something)


  1. Merriam-Webster dictionary
  2. Dr. Google May, 2023
  3. National Building Code (NBC), most recent edition
  4. Blacks law dictionary
  5. A Bundle of Blogs: On assessing the standard of care. Posted August 12, 2022

(Posted by Eric E. Jorden, M.Sc., P.Eng. Consulting Professional Engineer, Forensic Engineer, Geotechnology Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, May 19, 2023.   

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