Essentials of Negligence

Over the past several years the ‘tort of negligence’ has become the most common area of tort law. Negligence is said to have been committed when a person owes a duty of care towards someone and commits a breach of duty by failing to perform it resulting in legal damage caused to the complainant. In other words, Negligence is the breach of duty caused by the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, ought to do or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do.

To constitute an act as negligence, there are 6 essentials to be fulfilled-

1] Duty of Care:

Duty of care is the most important essential for evaluating an act as negligence. This means that the law imposes a legal duty of care upon a person towards the other or others while performing a certain act so that one would take reasonable care to avoid such harms that could reasonably be foreseen by the person. The case Stansbie v Troman[1] reflects about the duty of care. Here, Stansbie a decorator was engaged by Troman to decorate a house and after the completion of his work, Stansbie left the house without locking the doors and without informing anyone due to which a thief stole some property of the plaintiff. 

Stansbie was held liable as he had a duty to take reasonable care when he left premises unoccupied and unlocked. 

2] Duty must be towards the plaintiff:

The duty of care between the individuals may exist between individuals not currently related but related in some other manner as defined by the law. The duty arises because of a relationship in which one person stands to another person or authority responsible in certain circumstances. To understand upon whom and to what extent the duty of care is imposed on people, it is essential to understand Lord Atkin’s judgement in Donoghue v Stevenson[2] case. He assembled the fragments of the 19th century law of negligence under one principle that is the “Neighbour’s principle”. This principle says that when a person performs an act, anyone who is so closely and directly could get affected by that act must be contemplated by the person and such a person should also foresee any kind of harm that could possibly affect them.

3] Breach of Duty of care

After proving in a court of law that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care in a negligence claim, the plaintiff needs to show that the defendant breached such a duty by failing to exercise the reasonable care that is anticipated from him. Here, the defendant should fall below the standard of care appropriate to the duty. Such a breach of duty is measured by ‘reasonable man test’ where a reasonable man is an ordinary person performing a particular task and he is expected to perform such a task reasonably and competently. In Vaughan v Menlove[3], the defendant was warned by the plaintiff that his haystacks posed an igniting risk that could affect the plaintiff’s cottages but had taken no action due to which the plaintiff’s cottages got severely damaged. So the court held the defendant was guilty for breaching his duty of care towards the plaintiff and for not acting reasonably under the ‘reasonable man test’.

4] Actual cause or Cause in fact:

It is for the claimant to prove that the defendant’s breach of duty caused the damage of which he complains. It is not necessary to show that the defendant was the sole, or even major, cause so long as he proves that but for the defendant’s negligence the damage would not have happened. The general test for causation is the ‘but for’ test. Here, the injury to the claimant would not have occurred but for the negligence of the defendant, that negligence is an operative cause. The same can be seen in Chester v Afshar[4] where the claimant agreed to a back operation but the doctor negligently failed to communicate to her of an unavoidable injury. When the injury resulted she claimed that but for the doctor’s negligence, she would not have had the operation.

5] Proximate Cause:

The proximate cause will be the cause that the law recognises as the primary reason/cause for the injury or harm to the plaintiff. The proximate cause might not be the first event that is set in a motion of sequence of events leading to an injury or might not be the last event before the injury occurs. A defendant in a negligence claim is responsible only for those harmful consequences that a defendant could have reasonably anticipated. The same can be observed in Palsgraf v Long Island Railroad Co.[5] where the plaintiff got hit by the scales of the firework from the opposite end of the railway station and the court held that the defendant’s employees had no direct relationship with the plaintiff.

6] Consequential damage 

A negligence claim is only actionable only if it causes damage or harm to the plaintiff only due to the breach of duty of care by the defendant and not due to any other cause. The defendant will not be held liable if the damage is too remote to be a consequence of the defendant’s actions. The harm might be caused to the plaintiff in the following ways- “Bodily harm, harm to reputation, harm to property, financial loss, mental harm”. After proving such damage, the defendant is compelled to compensate the plaintiff for the injury that occurred.

  [1] [1948] 2 KB 48

[2] 1932 SC (HL) 31

[3] (1837) 132 ER 490 (CP)

[4] [2004] UKHL 41

[5] 248 N.Y. 339

Aishwarya Says:

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