Relevant to LW-ENG and LW-IRL
If there’s one area of the Corporate and Business Law syllabus that students appear to struggle with, it’s the tort of negligence. The examiners’ reports indicate that students do not understand the subject very well – in particular, the various elements that a claimant must prove in order for the defendant to be found negligent. This article addresses each of the key elements in turn, but we begin with an explanation of why tort developed.
Torts are legal wrongs that one party suffers at the hands of another. Negligence is a form of tort which evolved because some types of loss or damage occur between parties that have no contract between them, and therefore there is nothing for one party to sue the other over.
In the 1932 case of Donoghue v Stevenson, the House of Lords decided that a person should be able to sue another who caused them loss or damage even if there is no contractual relationship. Donoghue was given a bottle of ginger beer by a friend, who had purchased it for her. After drinking half the contents, she noticed that the bottle contained a decomposing snail and suffered nervous shock as a result. Under contract law, Donoghue was unable to sue the manufacturer because her friend was party to the contract, not her.
However, the House of Lords decided to create a new principle of law that stated everyone has a duty of care to their neighbour, and this enabled Donoghue to successfully sue the manufacturer for damages.
Let’s consider a hypothetical case and use it to demonstrate how the tort of negligence works. Harry is involved in an accident in which his car is hit by one driven by Alex. As a consequence of the accident Harry breaks a leg and is unable to work for two months. Can Harry sue Alex for damages?
On the face of things the answer seems obvious. Harry was injured as a result of Alex driving into his car and so it seems fair that he should be able to sue him. However, think of the situation from Alex’s point of view, is it fair that Harry should be able to sue him just like that? People have accidents everyday – should they all be able to sue each other for every little incident? If they are then the courts would be overwhelmed with cases.
Thankfully, in order to prove negligence and claim damages, a claimant has to prove a number of elements to the court.
Even if negligence is proved, the defendant may have a defence that protects them from liability, or reduces the amount of damages they are liable for.
As we saw earlier, the concept of a duty of care was created in the Donoghue case. The House of Lords stated that every person owes a duty of care to their neighbour. The Lords went on to explain that ‘neighbour’ actually means ‘persons so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected’. This is a very wide (and complicated) definition that could include almost anyone – if still in operation today the courts would most certainly be overrun with cases.
The later cases of Anns v Merton London Borough Council (1977) and Caparo Industries plc v Dickman (1990) restricted the definition a little by introducing ‘proximity’ and ‘fairness’.
Proximity simply means that the parties must be ‘sufficiently close’ so that it is ‘reasonably foreseeable’ that one party’s negligence would cause loss or damage to the other. Fairness means that it is ‘fair, just and reasonable’ for one party to owe the duty to another.
What does this mean for Harry? I think you’ll agree that Alex owes him a duty of care. There is sufficient proximity (ie Alex drove into Harry’s car); it is reasonably foreseeable that a collision between the cars could cause Harry some injury, and it seems fair, just and reasonable for Alex to owe a duty of care to Harry (and indeed all other road users).
In many cases brought before the courts it is evident that a duty of care exists between the defendant and the claimant. The real issue is whether or not the actions of the defendant were sufficient to meet their duty. To determine this, the court will set the standard of care that they should have met. This standard consists of the actions which the court considers a ‘reasonable person’ would have taken in the circumstances. If the defendant failed to act reasonably given their duty of care, then they will be found to have breached it.
This ‘reasonable’ standard may be adjusted given the actual circumstances of the case. For example, if the claimant is vulnerable, such as being disabled or frail, it is reasonable to expect the defendant to have paid them special attention or taken extra care over them as compared to someone who is fit and healthy.
Other circumstances which may be taken into account include whether:
Back to the case of Harry and Alex. In determining whether or not Alex broke his duty of care, a court will consider whether or not, given the circumstances, he drove as a reasonable person would have. For example, if it was foggy or wet at the time, he would be expected to show that he drove cautiously. In determining whether Alex’s actions were reasonable, evidence may have to be taken from witnesses and expert analysis of the crash may be required. For now, let’s assume Alex was not driving reasonably.
In extraordinary cases, the facts may be so overwhelmingly in favour of the claimant that the court decides the defendant should prove that they were not negligent. The legal term for this is res ipsa loquitur (meaning the facts speak for themselves). It applies in circumstances where the cause of the injury was under the control of the defendant and that the incident would not have occurred if they had taken proper care. It is often applied in medical cases, for example in Mahon v Osborne (1939), a surgeon had to prove it was not negligent to leave a swab inside a patient.
In this element the claimant simply has to prove that the loss or damage was a direct consequence of the defendant’s breach of duty of care. In other words that there is a chain of causality from the defendant’s actions to the claimant’s loss or damage. A simple test, called the ‘but for’ test is applied. All the claimant has to prove is that if it were not ‘but for’ the actions of the defendant then they would not have suffered the loss or damage.
Where there is more than one possible cause of the loss or damage, the defendant will only be liable if it can be proved that their actions are the most likely cause.
A good case which illustrates how the ‘but for’ test operates is Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington HMC (1969) – another medical case. A casualty department doctor negligently sent a patient home – the patient died. However, the doctor was not found liable for damages because the patient was suffering from arsenic poisoning and would have died no matter what the negligent doctor could have done.
The loss itself must not be ‘too remote’. It is an important principle that people should only be liable for losses which they should have reasonably foreseen as a potential outcome of their actions. The Wagon Mound (1961) is a case often cited in explanation of this principle. Oil leaked out of the defendant’s boat within Sydney harbour and came into contact with some cotton waste which had fallen into the water. The oil was of a particular type which would not foreseeably catch fire on water. However, the cotton ignited and this in turn set the oil ablaze causing damage to the claimant’s wharf. The defendants were not found liable for fire damage as the actual cause of the fire was held too remote.
Other events, which are outside the control of the defendant, may intervene in the chain of causality – adding some confusion to the outcome of a case. The good news is that there are some simple rules to remember that deal with them.
At all times you should bear in mind that the defendant will only be liable if their actions are the most probable cause of the loss or damage. They will not be liable if an intervening act becomes the real cause. Examples of intervening acts which remove liability from the defendant include:
Let’s return to Harry and Alex. It is entirely possible for the accident to be caused by a third party driving into Alex, forcing him into Harry. It is also possible that Harry himself was an intervening factor – maybe he was driving erratically. Either of these factors could mean that Alex’s breach of duty is not the real cause of Harry’s injuries.
For now, let’s assume that no third party is involved and that any actions Harry took are not enough to take the blame for the cause of the accident away from Alex. The court will therefore find Alex liable for negligence to Harry.
There are two defences a defendant can use where they are found liable for negligence. One will exonerate them completely; the other reduces the level of damages they are liable for.
Volenti non fit injuria simply means the voluntary acceptance of the risk of injury. If a defendant can prove the claimant accepted the risk of loss or damage, they will not be liable. Acceptance can be express (usually by a consent form being signed) or implied through the claimant’s conduct.
Contributory negligence takes part of the blame away from the defendant if it can be proved the claimant contributed in some way to their loss or damage. The defendant is still liable, but will face a reduced damages payout.
In Harry and Alex’s case, volenti is not an issue – in no way did Harry consent to the accident. However, if his actions contributed in some way to his injuries, maybe by not wearing a seatbelt, then he may find the amount of damages he receives is reduced.
Finally, a brief word about using cases in exam answers. Students are often concerned about how many cases they should quote, or what happens if they cannot remember a case name. The simple fact is that students fail this exam because they do not know the law – not because they cannot remember a case name.
My advice on cases is:
As an example, consider this article – only six cases were mentioned. See if you can remember their names.
Stephen Osborne is a technical author at BPP Learning Media