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Independent and Joint Tortfeasors

Independent and Joint Tortfeasors
Independent and Joint Tortfeasors


Tortfeasors, individuals or entities responsible for committing a tort, may be categorised as independent or joint based on their actions and intentions.

Independent Tortfeasors

Independent tortfeasors act separately but their actions converge to cause a single harm. Despite acting independently, their similar actions lead to a shared consequence. For instance, two motorists driving negligently and colliding, resulting in harm to a pedestrian, are considered independent tortfeasors.

In The Koursk case, two ships collided due to independent negligence, resulting in damage to a third vessel. Each ship was considered an independent tortfeasor, and their liability was several, not joint. This means each tortfeasor faced separate actions, as many as the number of individuals responsible.

Joint Tortfeasors

Joint tortfeasors, on the other hand, act together in furtherance of a common design, resulting in a single harm. Their actions are not independent but part of a shared endeavour. For example, in Brook v. Bool, two individuals searching for a gas leak inadvertently caused an explosion, making them joint tortfeasors.


Relationships and Liability

Certain relationships, such as principal and agent, master and servant, or partners in a firm, may also entail joint liability for torts committed within the scope of their association. For instance, if an agent commits a wrongful act within their employment, both the agent and the principal can be held liable as joint tortfeasors.

Key Distinction

The key distinction between joint and independent tortfeasors lies in the concurrence of their actions and intentions. Joint tortfeasors act together, not only in causing harm but also in their mental intent, while independent tortfeasors cause harm independently, with their actions coincidentally leading to a shared consequence.

Composite Tortfeasors in Indian Jurisprudence

In India, courts have adopted the concept of composite tortfeasors to encompass situations where two or more individuals are collectively responsible for a shared harm, whether through independent or joint actions. This approach deviates from the traditional distinction between joint and independent tortfeasors observed in English law.

Distinction in Liability

  1. Joint vs. Independent Tortfeasors: Traditionally, joint tortfeasors were considered to give rise to a single cause of action. A judgement against one tortfeasor concluded the cause of action, barring further actions against the others.

  2. Legislative Alignment with England: Legislation in England has brought joint tortfeasors' liability in line with independent tortfeasors, allowing actions against some tortfeasors without precluding actions against others.

Joint and Several Liability

Joint and Several Liability:

  • Joint tortfeasors are jointly and severally liable, affording the plaintiff the choice to sue any or all of them for the full compensation.

  • For instance, both principal and agent are jointly and severally liable for the agent's wrongful acts. The plaintiff can sue either party for the entire damage, regardless of the actual wrongdoer.

  • Similarly, a master is liable alongside the servant, and a partnership firm is liable for the wrongful acts of a partner to the same extent as the guilty partner.

Apportionment of Damages:

  • In cases involving multiple tortfeasors, the tribunal is not tasked with apportioning damages between them.

  • Each tortfeasor may be held liable for the entire compensation awarded, regardless of their individual contribution to the harm.

Release of a Joint Tortfeasor

In English law, it has long been established that releasing one joint tortfeasor absolves all others from liability. This principle remains unaffected by the Law Reform Act of 1935. With joint tortfeasors, there exists a single and indivisible cause of action.

Thus, the release of one extinguishes the cause of action against all others, irrespective of the mode of release, whether by seal or accord and satisfaction.

The release of a joint tortfeasor differs from a mere covenant not to sue any one of them. While the former releases all others from liability, the latter only discharges the particular wrongdoer from liability, leaving the action against the others intact.

In Cutler v. McPhail, the release of certain officers of the Pinner Association, responsible for the publication of defamatory letters, led to a contention regarding the automatic release of the defendant who sent the letters.

The court held that the release of joint tortfeasors extinguishes the cause of action against all others. Thus, the defendant was released from liability upon the release of the Pinner Association officers.

Indian law generally follows English law on this matter. In Shiv Sagar Lal v. Mata Din, the court determined that a release of one tortfeasor amounted to a mere covenant not to sue, preserving the right to proceed against the remaining joint tortfeasors.

However, in some cases, it has been held that for the release of one tortfeasor to affect others, there must be full satisfaction for the tort committed by all defendants. Partial satisfaction, such as a compromise with one defendant only, does not release the others from liability.

In Ram Kumar v. Ali Hussain, the plaintiff's compromise with one defendant did not release the others due to insufficient satisfaction for the tort committed by all defendants.


Rights of Tortfeasors: Contribution and Indemnity

Contribution between Joint Tortfeasors

Initially, under English law, joint tortfeasors couldn't claim contribution from each other. This rule was established in Merryweather v. Nixan. However, it was criticised for its unjust outcomes.

The Law Reform (Married Women and Tortfeasors) Act, 1935, abolished this rule. Now, a tortfeasor who pays more than their share can claim contribution from others responsible for the damage.  This right is subject to certain conditions, as outlined in the Act.

In India, the application of this rule has varied. While some cases have followed Merryweather v. Nixan, others have questioned its relevance. The High Courts of Nagpur, Calcutta, and Allahabad have stated that the rule doesn't apply in India.


Joint tortfeasors are jointly and severally liable, meaning the injured party can recover the entire loss from any one of them. However, if one tortfeasor pays more than their share, they can seek indemnity from others responsible for the wrongful act. Even before the 1935 Act, exceptions to Merryweather v. Nixan allowed for indemnity claims.

In cases of vicarious liability, an innocent party can claim indemnity from the person at fault. For example, a servant may indemnify their master for damages resulting from the servant's actions. Similarly, a principal may seek indemnity from an agent for wrongful acts committed within the scope of their authority.

In India, there's no statute equivalent to the 1935 Act. Courts have debated whether to follow Merryweather v. Nixan or adopt the principles outlined in the Act.

Some Indian courts have rejected the applicability of Merryweather v. Nixan, stating that it goes against principles of justice, equity, and good conscience. Instead, they argue for an equitable distribution of liability among joint tortfeasors.


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