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Negligence under Law of Torts: Meaning, Essentials, Remedies and Defences | Civil Law for Judiciary Exams PDF Download

Introduction

  • In our everyday language, negligence refers to carelessness or the state of being negligent. However, in a legal context, negligence entails the failure to fulfill the basic care that a reasonable person should exercise in various situations.
  • The primary considerations in determining whether a person's conduct lacks reasonable care involve evaluating the foreseeable likelihood of harm resulting from their actions, the potential severity of such harm, and the burden of precautions necessary to mitigate the risk of harm. 
  • Individuals who suffer losses due to another's negligence may have the option to pursue damages to compensate for the harm inflicted. This harm can encompass physical injury, damage to property, mental distress, or financial loss. The legal framework for negligence is often assessed through a five-part model, involving the examination of duty, breach, actual cause, proximate cause, and damages.
  • For instance, a store owner who neglects to display a "Caution: Wet Floor" sign after cleaning up a spill serves as an illustration.

Understanding Negligence in the Law of Torts

Definition of Negligence

  • Negligence, as per legal scholars Winfield and Jolowicz, refers to breaching a legal duty to take care, resulting in unintended harm to the plaintiff.
  • Lord Wright expands on this, stating that negligence involves more than just careless actions; it encompasses the concepts of duty, breach, and resulting harm.
  • Charlesworth & Percy highlight three meanings of negligence: as a state of mind opposed to intention, careless conduct, and breaching the duty of care imposed by law.
  • In the case of Blyth v. Birmingham WaterWorks Co., negligence is defined as the failure to act as a reasonable person would or engaging in actions an ordinary prudent person would avoid.

Examples of Negligence

  • In the Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Subhagwanti case, a neglected clock tower collapsed due to lack of maintenance, leading to fatalities. The corporation was held liable for compensation.
  • Another instance is Nihal Kaur v. Director, P.G.I Chandigarh, where surgical scissors were left inside a patient's body post-operation, resulting in the patient's death and a compensation award to the deceased's dependents.

Negligence as a Tort

  • The concept of negligence is utilized to establish liability in Civil and sometimes Criminal Law. In Civil Law, the extent of liability is often determined by the damages incurred, while in Criminal Law, liability hinges on the degree of negligence.
  • Torts refer to legal wrongs experienced by one party due to another. Negligence, a type of tort, emerged to address situations where loss or damage occurs between parties lacking a contractual relationship, thereby limiting legal recourse.
  • Key considerations for proving negligence include:
    • The harm must be a reasonably foreseeable outcome of the defendant's actions.
    • A close relationship of proximity between the parties must exist.
    • Imposing liability must be deemed fair, just, and reasonable.

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Elements of Negligence under Law of Torts

Duty of care to the plaintiff

  • Duty of care signifies a legal obligation, not merely a moral or social responsibility. The plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant had a specific legal duty towards them, which was breached. There is no universal rule defining this duty; it varies case by case.
  • Breach of duty refers to the failure to exercise the required level of care in a given situation. The standard is that of a reasonable or prudent person. Negligence occurs when an individual fails to act as a reasonable person would in similar circumstances.
  • The standard of care considers the significance of the goal, the level of risk involved, and the compensation for the services offered.
    • The importance of the objective: The law does not demand the highest degree of care but that which a reasonable person would exercise in specific circumstances.
    • The magnitude of the risk: The required level of care varies depending on the situation and the type of risk present.
    • The consideration for the services: The care expected also depends on the nature of the services provided and the payment received.
  • For instance, the care expected when selling a glass of water for a nominal price differs from that when selling expensive mineral water. The degree of care should match the circumstances and the compensation.
  • It is essential for the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant's breach of duty directly led to harm, and that the damage was not an unforeseeable consequence of the negligence.

Rebuttal of the presumption of negligence

  • The principle of res ipsa loquitur shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant. Instead of the plaintiff proving negligence, the defendant must disprove it.
  • If the defendant can show that what appears to be negligence was due to factors beyond their control, they can avoid liability.

Res Ipsa Loquitur

  • The concept of Res Ipsa Loquitur, originating from Latin, signifies "the thing speaks for itself." It implies that the circumstances surrounding an incident are adequate to infer what occurred.
  • Under this doctrine, certain accidents are deemed to indicate negligence based solely on their nature, without the need for direct evidence of negligence.
  • For instance, if a patient wakes up from surgery with a surgical tool left inside them, Res Ipsa Loquitur would apply, suggesting negligence on the part of the medical team.
  • This principle shifts the burden of proof to the defendant, requiring them to demonstrate that they were not negligent in the situation.

Remedies for Negligence under Law of Torts

  • Principal Remedy: The primary recourse in cases of negligence is the award of damages. For the claimant to receive compensation, the damage incurred must be reasonably foreseeable. This implies that a reasonable individual could have anticipated the type of harm or loss that transpired.
  • Proving the Duty of Care: Generally, it is the responsibility of the claimant to demonstrate that the defendant breached their duty of care. However, there are exceptional circumstances where the defendant must prove their lack of negligence. This situation arises when:
    • Proper Care Not Taken: The harm would not typically have occurred if appropriate care had been exercised.
    • Res Ipsa Loquitur: This Latin term translates to "the thing speaks for itself." It applies when there is no other plausible explanation for the incident other than negligence.
    • Defendant in Control: If the defendant had control over the situation leading to harm, while the victim had no control, the burden of proof may shift to the defendant.

Remoteness of Damage

Case: Overseas Tank-ship (UK) v Morts Dock and Engineering Co (The Wagon Mound) (1961)

  • Scenario: The defendant's negligence led to oil being spilled and collecting near the claimant's wharf, causing fire damage when the oil ignited.
  • Ruling: The defendants were not held liable for negligence under the Law of Torts as the damage by fire was not foreseeable, unlike the damage caused by oil pollution.
  • Liability: If the type of damage is reasonably foreseeable, the defendant is considered liable regardless of whether they could foresee the specific cause or severity of the damage.

Defences against Negligence under Law of Torts

  • Contributory Negligence: When both the plaintiff and defendant are negligent in a tort or wrongful action, the defendant can plead contributory negligence under the Law of Torts. This means that if the plaintiff's negligence contributed to their own injury, they may not be able to claim damages. For example, in the case of Butterfield v. Forrester, the plaintiff rode violently at dusk and collided with an obstruction that was visible from a distance.
  • Act of God or Vis Major: This defense refers to natural calamities such as heavy rainfall, storms, earthquakes, and volcanoes. For this defense to apply, two conditions must be met: there must be the working of natural forces, and the occurrence must be extraordinary and unforeseeable. An example is the case of Nichols v. Marsland, where heavy rain caused reservoirs to burst, leading to damages for which the defendant was not held liable.
  • Inevitable Accident: An inevitable accident occurs when the plaintiff suffers an unforeseen injury despite the defendant exercising reasonable care. The defendant must prove that they did not intend to harm the plaintiff and could not have prevented the injury with reasonable care. For instance, in Brown v. Kendal, the plaintiff was accidentally injured while the defendant attempted to separate fighting dogs, leading to a ruling of inevitable accident.

Question for Negligence under Law of Torts: Meaning, Essentials, Remedies and Defences
Try yourself:
Under the principle of res ipsa loquitur, when does the burden of proof shift to the defendant in a negligence case?
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