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Essentials of Negligence in Tort Law

Essentials of Negligence in Tort Law
Essentials of Negligence in Tort Law



Negligence carries two distinct meanings within the law of torts:

  • Negligence as a Mode of Committing Torts: In this context, negligence refers to the mental element involved in committing certain torts, such as trespass, nuisance, or defamation, negligently or carelessly.

  • Negligence as a Separate Tort: Negligence is also considered a distinct tort, referring to conduct that creates a risk of causing damage, irrespective of the individual's state of mind. This perspective was affirmed by the House of Lords in Donoghue v. Stevenson, treating negligence as a specific tort rather than merely an element of a more complex legal relationship.

Negligence as a Separate Tort

In Heaven v. Pender, actionable negligence is defined as the neglect of ordinary care or skill towards a person to whom the defendant owes a duty of observing such care and skill, resulting in injury to person or property.

In legal usage, negligence refers to the failure to exercise the standard of care that a reasonable person would have exercised in similar circumstances. A legal duty to take care arises when it was or should have been reasonably foreseeable that failure to do so could cause injury.

Negligence encompasses situations where harm is caused inadvertently due to inadequate precautions, despite efforts to be careful.

In English law, negligence is a specific tort involving the failure to exercise the care expected in particular circumstances, causing harm to another in person or property.

It implies the existence of a legal duty owed to the complainant and includes elements such as the standard of reasonable care, causal connection between the failure to take care and the injury suffered, and actual loss or damage to the complainant.


Forms of Negligence

Negligence can manifest in various forms, including causing personal injuries or death, liability of employers to employees, liability of land occupiers to visitors, liability of suppliers to consumers, and liability of professionals to their clients.

The categories of negligence are not exhaustive, and new varieties, such as negligence causing economic loss, may emerge over time.

Essentials of Negligence

In an action for negligence, the plaintiff has to prove the following  essentials :

1. That the defendant owed duty of care to the plaintiff;

2. The defendant made a breach of that duty,

3. The plaintiff suffered damage as a consequence thereof.

Duty of Care to the Plaintiff

The duty of care owed to the plaintiff is a legal obligation rather than merely a moral or social duty. To establish this duty, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant owed them a specific legal duty to take care and that this duty was breached.

There is no universal rule defining such a duty, as it varies depending on the circumstances of each case.

In Donoghue v. Stevenson, Lord Atkin highlighted the challenge in finding general statements defining the relationships between parties that give rise to a duty of care. Courts focus on the actual relationships presented in litigation and classify duties based on various factors, such as property ownership, occupation, control, and specific relations between parties.

The duty of care can arise from diverse relationships, and the courts recognize new duties as deemed just. As Lord Macmillan noted, "the categories of negligence are never closed," indicating the evolving nature of legal duties.

Lord Atkin's rule in Donoghue v. Stevenson, often cited and accepted, emphasises the need to take reasonable care to avoid actions or omissions that could reasonably foreseeable cause harm to one's "neighbour."

Here, "neighbours" are individuals directly affected by one's actions to the extent that they should be reasonably contemplated when considering the actions or omissions in question.

Duty of care hinges on the reasonable foreseeability of injury. Whether a defendant owes a duty to a plaintiff depends on whether, at the time of the act or omission, the defendant could reasonably anticipate injury to the plaintiff. 

If such foreseeability exists, the defendant is obligated to take measures to prevent that injury, and failure to do so renders them liable.

This duty to take care encompasses avoiding actions or omissions that could reasonably and probably result in harm to others, owed to those who may reasonably and probably anticipate injury if the duty is neglected.

Determining culpability involves assessing what a reasonable person would have foreseen and how they would have acted under the circumstances. One way to gauge this is by considering how apparent the risk would have been to an ordinary prudent individual.

In elucidating the standard of foresight for the reasonable person, Lord Macmillan remarked that it's an impersonal test, devoid of the idiosyncrasies of any particular individual. While the reasonable person is neither excessively apprehensive nor overly confident, there's a subjective element involved in its application. 

Judges must ascertain what the reasonable person would have contemplated in the specific case and what the party being held liable should have foreseen. This process allows for diverse interpretations, as what may seem far-fetched to one judge could appear natural and probable to another.

No Liability When Injury Not Foreseeable

In various legal cases, the principle emerges that liability is not incurred when the harm was not foreseeable:

Cates v. Mongini Bros.: The falling of a ceiling fan in a restaurant, caused by a latent defect, injured a lady visitor. Since the defect was not discoverable by a reasonable person and the harm was unforeseeable, the defendants, who ran the restaurant, were not deemed negligent and thus not liable for the lady's loss.

Krishnappa Naidu v. The Union of India: A taxi was hit by a train at a level crossing, where the taxi driver ignored warnings. As the taxi driver was considered a trespasser on the railway track and the accident couldn't be anticipated by the train driver despite best efforts, the railway administration was not negligent and therefore not liable.

Ryan v. Youngs: An accident occurred when a lorry driver suddenly died while driving. Since the driver's sudden death couldn't have been foreseen by the defendant, the accident was deemed an Act of God, absolving the defendant of liability.

Glasgow Corp. v. Muir: In a tea-room, an accident transpired when a picnic party member lost grip of a tea urn, injuring several children. It was held that the manager couldn't have anticipated such an event, absolving her and the Corporation from liability.


Duty Owed to Plaintiffs

In the world of negligence law, before someone can sue for damages, they need to show that the person they're suing had a responsibility towards them. It's not enough to just prove that the person was careless; you have to prove they had a duty to be careful towards you in the first place.

Here's the thing: if the person who was careless owes a duty of care to someone else, not just you, then you can't sue them, even if you got hurt because of what they did. This might seem a bit unfair, but it's how the law works, and there are a couple of cases that illustrate this point pretty well.

Let's take the case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. A passenger was trying to board a moving train when the railroad company's employees tried to help him. But in the process, they accidentally knocked over a package containing fireworks, which caused an explosion that injured a bystander. 

The court said that even though the employees were careless, the injured bystander couldn't sue because they weren't directly involved. According to Chief Justice Cardozo, the employees' actions weren't negligent towards the bystander because they had no way of knowing the danger posed by the package.

Then there's the case of Bourhill v. Young in England. A woman was standing near a tram when a speeding motorcyclist crashed into a car nearby. She didn't see the accident happen, but she heard the noise and later saw the aftermath.

This caused her a lot of distress, but the court said she couldn't sue the motorcyclist's estate for damages. Why? Because the motorcyclist didn't owe her a duty of care. He couldn't have predicted that his actions would affect her since she was on the other side of the tram when the accident occurred.

Breach of Duty

When we talk about breach of duty, we're essentially referring to someone not being as careful as they should be in a given situation. But what exactly does "being careful" mean? Well, it's all about meeting the standard of care expected in that particular circumstance.

And what's that standard? It's what an ordinary, reasonable person would do in similar circumstances. If the person accused of negligence acted like any reasonable and prudent individual would, then legally, there's no negligence involved.

In the landmark case of Blyth v. Birmingham Waterworks Co., Alderson B. famously defined negligence as the failure to do what a reasonable person would do or doing something that a prudent person wouldn't.

Essentially, it's about following the same level of caution that an average person would in similar situations. This principle has always been the cornerstone of negligence law.

Importantly, this standard of care is objective, meaning it's not about what the specific person involved thought was reasonable; it's about what a judge determines would be considered reasonable in that situation.

Each case is unique, and it's up to the judge to decide what level of caution should have been exercised and what risks should have been anticipated by the party being accused of negligence.

Factors Determining Standard of Care

Now, when it comes to determining this standard of care, the law considers a few key factors. Firstly, it looks at the importance of the task or goal at hand. Secondly, it evaluates the level of risk involved.

And finally, it takes into account the compensation or consideration offered for the services rendered. These elements help the court assess what level of care should reasonably have been expected from the individual or entity in question.


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