What is a Tort?
Tort is basically a civil wrong, other than a breach of contract, whose remedy includes unliquidated damages for the injury caused.
- It is an act or omission that causes harm to another person, breaching his legal rights, and giving rise to liability.
- The primary aim of the tort law is to remedy the harm caused by way of compensation and deter others from doing the same.
- The injured party may bring a civil suit against the defendant to obtain an injunction or recover damages in the form of monetary compensation.
- The common forms of torts include trespass, assault, battery, negligence, nuisance, defamation, etc.
The following are some prominent case laws that have shaped the development of tort law.
Some important Tort Law terms and related cases
1. Injuria sine damno
Ashby vs White
- Issue: Whether the plaintiff, a qualified voter, will succeed in his action against the defendant, a returning officer, who refused to take the plaintiff’s vote in a parliamentary election.
- Held: Even though the plaintiff did not suffer any loss or damage, the defendant violated plaintiff’s legal right by wrongfully refusing to take his vote. The defendant was held liable as there cannot be any right without a remedy. The court upheld the doctrine of Injuria sine damno.
Bhim Singh vs State of Jammu and Kashmir
- Issue: Whether the petitioner, an MLA of J&K Assembly, will succeed in his action for being wrongfully detained by the police, preventing him from attending the Assembly session.
- Held: The court ordered exemplary damages to the petitioner for violating his legal right.
2. Strict Liability
Rylands vs Fletcher
- Issue: Whether the defendant owed a strict liability to keep a potentially dangerous substance in his land in a case where water escaped from the land of the defendant and flooded the plaintiff’s coal mines, causing huge loss to him.
- Held: It was held that if a person brings something to his land which is likely to do mischief if it escapes, he does so at his own peril. Such a person owes an absolute liability to keep the potentially dangerous thing in his land. If he fails to do so, he is liable for all natural consequences of the escape even if he acted either intentionally or negligently. Therefore in the present case the defendant was held liable.
3. Absolute Liability
M.C. Mehta vs Union of India
- Issue: Whether the defendant was absolutely liable for the death of people caused due to leak of Oleum gas from the industry of the defendant.
- Held: The Supreme Court of India evolved the principle of ‘absolute liability’ for harm caused by hazardous or inherently dangerous industries. The court held that in such cases the industry should undertake the highest standard of safety and if any injury is caused, it is absolutely liable to the victims. The court deviated from the principle of ‘strict liability’ and ruled that exceptions under the rule of strict liability are not available in such cases. It was held that the defendant was liable to pay compensation to all victims of the escape of the toxic gas.
4. Vicarious Liability
Lloyd vs Grace, Smith & Co.
- Issue: Whether the defendant, a solicitor firm, is vicariously liable for the fraud committed by its managing clerk. The managing clerk fraudulently induced the plaintiff, who approached the firm for selling his cottages, to sell the cottages to him and misappropriated the funds.
- Held: The defendant was held liable for the act of his agent as he acted in the course of his apparent authority, even though it was solely for his benefit and without the knowledge of the defendant.
5. Vicarious Liability of the State
Kasturi Lal vs State of Uttar Pradesh
- Issue: Whether the state is vicariously liable for the act of the head constable who fled away with gold belonging to the plaintiff that was kept in the police custody on suspect of being stolen property.
- Held: The Supreme Court of India ruled that if a government officer acts in the discharge of the state's sovereign duties, the state would not be responsible for the crime he has committed. Therefore, as the property of the complainant was kept in police custody in return for the sovereign duty of the state, the state of UP was not found to be responsible.
6. Defences: Inevitable Accident
Holmes vs Mather
Issue: Whether the defendant is liable for the injuries caused to the plaintiff by his horses that became startled and unmanageable by the barking of a dog. Held: As the defence of inevitable accident was true in the instant event, it was held that the defendant is not responsible. To handle the horses, the defendant's servant did everything that was necessary. There was, therefore, no fault on his part in the misfortune that occurred.
Cope vs Sharp
Issue: Whether the defendant is liable for the tort of trespass for entering the land of the plaintiff to stop fire from spreading to his master’s land.
Held: It was held that the defendant entered the land of the plaintiff to take the measures required to save the land of his master from immediate and imminent risk. The action taken by the defendant was one that, in his place, any rational person would have taken. The defense of necessity was therefore held to be true.
8. Plaintiff is the Wrongdoer
Bird vs Holbrook
- Issue: Whether the defendant was liable to the plaintiff, a trespasser, who was injured by a spring-gun trap, set by the plaintiff in his garden, without giving notice. The defendant claimed the defence that the plaintiff being a trespasser was a wrongdoer, thus he is not liable.
- Held: It was held that, without giving notice, the defendant was responsible for setting up man traps. The defendant's intention was to injure and not to scare an attacker off. Therefore, while the plaintiff was a trespasser, the defense of the plaintiff being a wrongdoer in the present case was not a legitimate one.
9. Contributory Negligence
Butterfield vs Forrester
- Issue: Whether the defendant is liable to the plaintiff who sustained injuries on running into a pole on a highway, which was wrongfully put by the defendant. The defendant claimed the defence of contributory negligence.
- Held: It was held that by taking fair and ordinary caution, the defendant is not responsible for personal injury caused to the plaintiff since he should have noticed the obstruction and prevented the accident.
10. Volenti non fit injuria
Smith vs Baker
- Issue: In the instant case, the plaintiff was employed by the defendant for working on a drill to cut a rock. In the course of his employment, a stone fell from a crane on his head and injured him. The issue was whether the defendant could take the defence of volenti non fit injuria as the plaintiff was aware of the danger and he still continued to work for the defendant.
- Held: It was held that, while the plaintiff was aware of the threat, the defendant could not take the defense of volenti non fit injuria because he did not agree to take the risk of being hit by a stone. The simple fact that, with such knowledge, the plaintiff continued to work would not mean his acceptance. The defendant was also found accountable.
Haynes vs Harwood
- Issue: Whether the defendant was liable to the plaintiff, a policeman, for sustaining injuries while rescuing a woman and a child from defendant’s horse, negligently left unattended by him. The defendant took the defence of doctrine of volenti non fit injuria.
- Held: It was held that the defendant was responsible to the claimant. The plaintiff was under a moral obligation to save the woman and the child from the imminent danger created by the negligence of the defendant. It was further held that the doctrine of volenti non fit injuria did not extend to rescue cases because, owing to the negligence of the defendant, the plaintiff did not agree to the danger to which he was exposed.
11. Trespass to Person
Battery Stanley vs Powell
- Issue: Whether a person has committed battery in a case where the defendant shot a bullet at a pheasant, but it accidentally hit the plaintiff and injured him.
- Held: It was held that for a person to be guilty of tort of battery, the harm caused should be intentional and the act should be wilful or negligent. Therefore in the present case the court held that since the act was purely accidental and unintentional, the defendant did not commit battery.
Assault Stephens vs Myers
- Issue: Whether there was assault in the act of the defendant when he charged towards the chairman of a meeting with a closed fist on being told by the majority to leave the meeting.
- Held: It was held that for assault, the defendant was responsible. The act of advancing towards the chairman threatening him to use force amounted to violence, even though he was stopped by those present in the meeting from completing his action.
12. Remoteness of Damage
Scott vs Shepherd
- Issue: Whether the defendant is liable for negligence for causing injury to the plaintiff. The defendant threw a lighted squib on a person in a crowd, who threw it away to another person who did the same thing and it finally exploded on the plaintiff.
- Held: It was held that the defendant was liable to the plaintiff because his act was the direct cause of the injury to the plaintiff, even if two other individuals intervened. The intermediaries were only working under compulsion to escape injury themselves.
Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd. vs Morts Dock and Engineering Co. Ltd. (The ‘Wagon Mound case’)
- Issue: Whether the defendant/appellant, owner of the wagon mound, is liable for negligence to the plaintiff/respondent, owner of a wharf. Due to negligence of the defendant’s servants, oil leaked from the wagon mound and drifted to the plaintiff’s wharf, where ship repair work (including welding operations) was carried on. Due to some mishap, fire was ignited due to presence of oil, causing huge damage to the plaintiff’s wharf.
- Held: It was held that as he did not know and could not reasonably be supposed to have known that the oil leak would lead to fire when spread on water, the defendant was not liable. A rational man could not have foreseen such an injury.
Bradford Corporation vs Pickles
- Issue: Whether the defendant is liable for discolouring and diminishing the water flowing to the plaintiff’s land by making certain excavations over his own land.
- Held: It has been concluded that an evil intent would not make a lawful act illegal. Even if what he did was to coerce the complainant to buy his property at a high price, the defendant made lawful use of his own land. The perpetrator was not found accountable.
Donoghue vs Stevenson
- Issue: Whether a manufacturer of a bottle of ginger beer, causing serious injuries to the plaintiff due to presence of half-decomposed body of a snail, guilty of negligence. The defendant claimed that since the bottle was purchased by the plaintiff from a retailer, he owed no duty of care to the plaintiff.
- Held: The House of Lords held that a person must take good care to prevent damage that can be reasonably foreseen by him to his neighbor. A neighbor has been generally defined as any person who can be directly impacted by one's act or omission. A manufacturer owes the customer a duty of care not to cause him harm by negligently causing his product to be infected at the time of production. The defendant was, nevertheless, held liable.
Bolton vs Stone
- Issue: Whether the defendants, members of a cricket club, were liable for causing injury to the plaintiff standing on the adjoining highway. The plaintiff was struck by a ball, hit by a batsman, which went across the stadium to the highway.
- Held: It was held that there was no negligence as the injury caused to the plaintiff was not reasonably foreseeable by the defendant.
Page vs Smith
- Issue: Whether the defendant is liable to the plaintiff for nervous shock caused by a minor road accident due to defendant’s negligence. There was no physical injury on collision but the crash triggered ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) that the plaintiff was suffering from, over the past 20 years. The plaintiff could not return to his job due to the accident and claimed damages for the same.
- Held: It was held that the defendant was responsible to the claimant. It did not matter whether the damage was physical or mental, as long as some sort of personal injury was foreseeable. In addition, the court applied the eggshell skull rule and ruled that the defendant could not say that the injury sustained by the claimant would not have been suffered by an average person as 'the defendant must take his victim as he considers him'.
Bolam vs Friern Hospital Management Committee
- Issue: Whether the hospital is liable for the negligence committed by its doctor while treating the plaintiff due to which he suffered some injuries.
- Held: In this case, the court set up a test to determine medical negligence. The defendant hospital was found not guilty of medical negligence as the doctor behaved in compliance with 'a procedure approved by a responsible body of medical men trained in that particular art' as appropriate. A doctor is expected to practice the ordinary capacity of a qualified doctor in his profession when treating his patient, and if he does so, he is not negligent.
Jacob Mathew vs State of Punjab
- Issue: Whether the state is responsible for negligence of a government hospital in failure to provide oxygen cylinder, which resulted in the death of the plaintiff’s father.
- Held: In cases of medical negligence, the court set down guidelines to be followed. It has been held that medical negligence does not amount to a simple error of judgment or an accident. In such situations, the doctor should take appropriate care and consider that ordinary male experiences are adequate. Since he is not supposed to have the highest level of competence in his profession, a doctor is not incompetent in failing to take exceptional measures that would have avoided the accident. Medical negligence may be identified only if the practitioner does not possess the qualification or capacity he professes to possess; or if he does not have sufficient competence to practice the ability.
Bird vs Jones
- Issue: Whether the defendant was liable for false imprisonment for obstructing the path of the plaintiff to go forward. Consequently, the plaintiff remained stuck for one hour.
- Held: It was held that there was no false imprisonment in the instant case as there was no total restraint. The obstruction was only in one direction and the plaintiff was free to go back or cross the bridge. Hence the defendant was not held liable.
Sturges vs Bridgman
- Issue: In the instant case the plaintiff moved next door to the defendant who was a confectioner. The main issue was whether the defendant was liable for nuisance caused to the plaintiff due to loud noises caused by pounding confectionery materials using mortars and pestles.
- Held: It was held that for interfering with the right of the plaintiff to use and enjoy his property, the defendant was liable for nuisance. It was further held that it was not a legitimate defence that the complainant had moved to the field of nuisance.
Miller vs Jackson
- Issue: Whether the defendant who was the chairman of a cricket club was liable for nuisance caused by hitting boundaries into the property of their neighbour.
- Held: It was held that by hitting the cricket balls into the property of the plaintiff, the defendant was responsible for causing nuisance as it interfered with his right to use and enjoy his property.
D.P. Chaudhary vs Manjulata
- Issue: Whether the publishers are liable for defamation for publishing untrue statements about the plaintiff that she had run away with some boy on pretext of attending evening classes in her college.
- Held: The argument was held to be untrue and without any excuse. The complainant was a girl who was 17 years old who belonged to a respectable family. The defendants were, however, found responsible.
Derry vs Peek
- Issue: Whether the directors of a company are liable for deceit for providing wrong information in the prospectus to the investors.
- Held: It was held that the defendants were not liable for deceit as they believed in the truth of the statement made by them in the prospectus. Further it was held that to succeed in establishing deceit, it must be proved that there is a false representation made by the defendant: (i) knowingly; or (ii) without belief in its truth; or (iii) recklessly, whether it is true or not.