Definitions

concurrent negligence

Negligence

[neg-li-juhns]
Negligence (Lat. negligentia, from negligere, to neglect, literally "not to pick up") is a legal concept in the common law legal systems usually used to achieve compensation for injuries (not accidents). Negligence is a type of tort or delict (also known as a civil wrong). However, the concept is sometimes used in criminal law as well. "Negligence" is not the same as "carelessness", because someone might be exercising as much care as they are capable of, yet still fall below the level of competence expected of them. It is the opposite of "diligence". It can be generally defined as conduct that is culpable because it falls short of what a reasonable person would do to protect another individual from a foreseeable risks of harm. In the words of Lord Blackburn,

"those who go personally or bring property where they know that they or it may come into collision with the persons or property of others have by law a duty cast upon them to use reasonable care and skill to avoid such a collision."

Through civil litigation, if an injured person proves that another person acted negligently to cause his injury, he can recover damages to compensate for his harm. Proving a case for negligence can potentially entitle the injured plaintiff to compensation for harm to their body, property, mental well-being, financial status, or intimate relationships. However, because negligence cases are very fact-specific, this general definition does not fully explain the concept of when the law will require one person to compensate another for losses caused by accidental injury. Further, the law of negligence at common law is only one aspect of the law of liability. Although resulting damages must be proved in order to recover compensation in a negligence action, the nature and extent of those damages are not the primary focus of negligence cases.

Elements of negligence claims

Negligence suits have historically been analyzed in stages, called elements, similar to the analysis of crimes. Common law jurisdictions may differ slightly in the exact classification of the elements of negligence, but the elements that must be established in every negligence case are: duty, breach, causation, and damages. Each is defined and explained in greater detail in the paragraphs below. Negligence can be conceived of as having just three elements - conduct, causation and damages. More often, it is said to have four (duty, breach, causation and pecuniary damages) or five (duty, breach, actual cause, proximate cause, and damages). Each would be correct, depending on how much specificity someone is seeking. "The broad agreement on the conceptual model," writes Professor Robertson of the University of Texas, "entails recognition that the five elements are best defined with care and kept separate. But in practice," he goes on to warn, "several varieties of confusion or conceptual mistakes have sometimes occurred.

Duty of care

The case of Donoghue v. Stevenson [1932] illustrates the law of negligence, laying the foundations of the fault principle around the Commonwealth. Plaintiff Ms. Donoghue drank ginger beer given to her by a friend, who bought it from a shop. The beer was supplied by a manufacturer under a certain Mr. Stevenson of Scotland. While drinking the drink, Ms. Donoghue discovered the remains of an allegedly decomposed snail. She then sued Mr. Stevenson, though there was no relationship of contract, as the friend had made the payment. As there was no contract the doctrine of privity prevented a direct action against the manufacturer, Mr David Stevenson. In his ruling, justice Lord MacMillan presiding over the case defined a new category of tort, (which is really not based on negligence but on what is now known as the "implied warranty of fitness of a product" in a completely different category of tort--"products liability") because it was analogous to previous cases about people hurting each other. Lord Atkin interpreted the biblical passages to 'love thy neighbour,' as the legal requirement to 'not harm thy neighbour.' He then went on to define neighbour as "persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions that are called in question." Reasonably foreseeable harm must be compensated. This is the first principle of negligence. In England the more recent case of Caparo v. Dickman [1990] introduced a 'threefold test' for a duty of care. Harm must be (1) reasonably foreseeable (2) there must be a relationship of proximity between the plaintiff and defendant and (3) it must be 'fair, just and reasonable' to impose liability. However, these act as guidelines for the courts in establishing a duty of care; much of the principle is still at the discretion of judges.

Breach of duty

Once it is established that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff/claimant, the matter of whether or not that duty was breached must be settled. The test is both subjective and objective. The defendant who knowingly (subjective) exposes the plaintiff/claimant to a substantial risk of loss, breaches that duty. The defendant who fails to realize the substantial risk of loss to the plaintiff/claimant, which any reasonable person in the same situation would clearly have realized, also breaches that duty.

Breach of duty is not restricted to professionals or persons under written or oral contract; all members of society have a duty to exercise reasonable care toward others and their property. A person who engages in activities that pose an unreasonable risk toward others and their property that actually results in harm, breaches their duty of reasonable care. An example is shown in the facts of Bolton v. Stone, a 1951 legal case decided by the House of Lords which established that a defendant is not negligent if the damage to the plaintiff was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of his conduct. In the case, a Miss Stone was struck on the head by a cricket ball while standing outside her house. Cricket balls were not normally hit a far enough distance to pose a danger to people standing as far away as was Miss Stone. Although she was injured, the court held that she did not have a legitimate claim because the danger was not sufficiently foreseeable. As stated in the opinion, 'Reasonable risk' cannot be judged with the benefit of hindsight. As Lord Denning said in Roe v. Minister of Health, the past should not be viewed through rose coloured spectacles. Therefore, there was no negligence on the part of the medical professionals in a case faulting them for using contaminated medical jars because the scientific standards of the time indicated a low possibility of medical jar contamination. Even if some were harmed, the professionals took reasonable care for risk to their patients.

For the rule in the U.S., see: Calculus of negligence

Factual causation

For a defendant to be held liable, it must be shown that the particular acts or omissions were the cause of the loss or damage sustained. Although the notion sounds simple, the causation between one's breach of duty and the harm that results to another can at times be very complicated. The basic test is to ask whether the injury would have occurred but for, or without, my breach of duty. Even more precisely, if a breaching party materially increases the risk of harm to another, then the breaching party can be sued to the value of harm that he caused.

Asbestos litigations which have been ongoing for decades revolve around the issue of causation. Interwoven with the simple idea of a party causing harm to another are issues on insurance bills and compensations, which sometimes drove compensating companies out of business.

Legal causation or remoteness

Sometimes factual causation is distinguished from 'legal causation' to avert the danger of defendants being exposed to, in the words of Cardozo, J., "liability in an indeterminate amount for an indeterminate time to an indeterminate class. It is said a new question arises of how remote a consequence a person's harm is from another's negligence. We say that one's negligence is 'too remote' (in England) or not a 'proximate cause' (in the U.S.) of another's harm if one would 'never' reasonably foresee it happening. Note that a 'proximate cause' in U.S. terminology (to do with the chain of events between the action and the injury) should not be confused with the 'proximity test' under the English duty of care (to do with closeness of relationship). The idea of legal causation is that if no one can foresee something bad happening, and therefore take care to avoid it, how could anyone be responsible?

For instance, in Palsgraf v. Long Island Rail Road Co. the judge decided that the defendant, a railway was not liable for an injury suffered by a distant bystander. The plaintiff, Palsgraf, was hit by scales that fell on her as she waited on a train platform. The scales fell because of a far-away commotion. A train conductor had run to help a man into a departing train. The man was carrying a package as he jogged to jump in the train door. The package had fireworks in it. The conductor mishandled the passenger or his package, causing the package to fall. The fireworks slipped and exploded on the ground causing shockwaves to travel through the platform. As a consequence, the scales fell. Because Ms. Palsgraf was hurt by the falling scales, she sued the train company who employed the conductor for negligence..

The defendant train company argued it should not be liable as a matter of law, because despite the fact that they employed the employee, who was negligent, his negligence was too remote from the plaintiff's injury. On appeal, the court agreed, however, it was divided when it came time to explain the reason why the defendant was not liable. One view was that the defendant owed no duty of care to the defendant, because a duty was owed only to foreseeable plaintiffs. This was the view advanced by Judge Cardozo. The other view was that the defendant owed a duty to the defendant, regardless of foreseeability, because all men owe one another a duty not to act negligently. This was the view advanced by Judge Andrews. According to Andrews, however, the defendant still should not be liable because, despite having owed a duty, and breached it, the breach was not the proximate cause of the injury.

This difference of opinion in the role of remoteness continues to trouble American courts. Courts follow Cardozo's view have greater control in negligence cases. If the court can find that, as a matter of law, the defendant owed no duty of care to the plaintiff, the plaintiff will lose his case for negligence before having a chance to present to the jury. Cardozo's view is the majority view. However, some courts follow the position put forth by Judge Andrews. In jurisdictions following the minority rule, defendants must phrase their remoteness arguments in terms of proximate cause if they wish the court to take the case away from the jury.

Remoteness takes another form, seen in the Wagon Mound No. 2. The Wagon Mound was a ship in Sydney harbour. The Wagon Mound was a ship which leaked oil creating a slick in part of the harbour. The wharf owner asked the ship owner about the danger and was told he could continue his work because the slick would not burn. The wharf owner allowed work to continue on the wharf, which sent sparks onto a rag in the water which ignited and created a fire which burnt down the wharf. The UK House of Lords determined that the wharf owner 'intervened' in the causal chain, creating a responsibility for the fire which canceled out the liability of the ship owner. In Australia, the concept of remoteness, or proximity, was tested with the case of Jaensch v. Coffey. The wife of a policeman, Mrs Jaensch suffered a nervous shock injury from the aftermath of a motor vehicle accident although she was not actually at the scene at the time of the accident. The court upheld in addition to it being reasonably foreseeable that his wife might suffer such an injury, it also required that there be sufficient proximity between the plaintiff and the defendant who caused the accident. Here there was sufficient causal proximity.

Damage

Even though there is breach of duty, and the cause of some injury to the defendant, a plaintiff may not recover for injury unless he can prove that the defendant's breach caused a pecuniary injury. This should not be mistaken with the requirements that a plaintiff prove harm to recover for it. As a general rule, a plaintiff can only recover legal remedy to the point that he proves that he suffered a loss. It means something more that pecuniary loss is a necessary element of the plaintiff's case in negligence. When damages are not a necessary element, a plaintiff can win his case without showing that he suffered any loss; he would be entitled to Nominal damages and any other damages according to proof. Negligence is different in that the plaintiff must prove his loss, and a particular kind of loss, to recover anything. In some cases, a defendant may not dispute the loss, but the requirement is significant in cases where a defendant cannot deny his negligence, but the plaintiff suffered no loss as a result. If the plaintiff can prove pecuniary loss, then he can also obtain damages for non-pecuniary injuries, such as emotional distress.

The pecuniary loss requirement can be shown in a number of ways. A plaintiff who is physically injured by allegedly negligent conduct may show that he had to pay a medical bill. If his property is damaged, he could show the income lost because he could not use it, the cost to repair it (although he could only recover for one of these things). For example, if a plaintiff is in a car accident, he may have evidence of how much it cost for a professional to repair the car.

The damage may be physical (e.g. personal injury), economic (e.g. pure financial loss), or both (e.g. financial loss of earnings consequent on a personal injury), reputational (e.g. in a defamation case), or in relationships where a family may have lost a wage earner through a negligent act. In English law, at least, the right to claim for purely economic loss is limited to a number of 'special' and clearly defined circumstances, often related to the nature of the duty to the plaintiff as between clients and lawyers, financial advisers, and other professions where money is central to the consultative services.

Emotional distress has been recognized as compensable in the case of negligence. The general rule was that emotional distress damages had to be parasitic. That is, the plaintiff could recover for emotional distress caused by injury, but only if it accompanied a physical or pecuniary injury. A plaintiff who came to court having suffered only emotional distress and no pecuniary loss would not win a suit for negligence. However, a modern trend allows recovery for a plaintiff to recover for negligence causing him purely emotional distress under certain circumstances. The state courts of California allowed recovery for emotional distress alone even in the absence of any physical injury to the plaintiff, when the defendant physically injures a relative of the plaintiff, and the plaintiff witnesses it.

Damages

Damages place a monetary value on the harm done, following the principle of restitutio in integrum (the Latin for "restoration to the original condition"). Thus, for most purposes connected with the quantification of damages, the degree of culpability in the breach of the duty of care is irrelevant. Once the breach of the duty is established, the only requirement is to compensate the victim. But, particularly in the U.S., punitive or exemplary damages may be awarded in addition to compensatory damages to reflect the egregious nature of the defendant's conduct, e.g. that the defendant was malicious or callously indifferent.

One of the main tests that is posed when deliberating whether a defendant is entitled to compensation for a tort, is the "reasonable person". The test is self-explanatory: would a reasonable person (as determined by a judge or jury) be damaged by the breach of duty. Simple as the "reasonable person" test sounds, it is very complicated. It is a risky test because it involves the opinion of either the judge or the jury that can be based on limited facts. However, as vague as the "reasonable person" test seems, it is extremely important in deciding whether or not a defendant is entitled to compensation for a negligence tort.

Damages are, in general, compensatory and not punitive in nature. This means that the amount paid matches the plaintiff/claimant's actual loss (in cases involving physical injury, the amount awarded should aim to compensate for the pain and suffering). It is not the court's intention to punish the defendant. The award should be sufficient so as to put the plaintiff/claimant back in the position he or she was before the tort was committed and no more, because otherwise the plaintiff/claimant would actually profit from the tort. The award of damages may include the following heads of damage:

  • Special damages - losses suffered from the date of the tort up until the date of trial and which can be precisely quantified in monetary terms.
  • General damages - losses that cannot be quantified exactly in monetary terms (the actual pain, suffering, and loss of amenity caused by the negligent act), as well as expected future losses from the date of trial (e.g. continuing pain and suffering, and loss of earnings). Where the plaintiff/claimant proves only negligible loss or damage, or the court is unable to quantify the losses, the court may award nominal damages.
  • Punitive damages - are awards of amounts greater than those needed to compensate the victim and are intended to deter intentional, usually malicious, wrongdoing. They are not available where only negligence has been proved.

Procedure in the United States

The plaintiff must prove each element to win his case. Therefore, if it is highly unlikely that the plaintiff can prove one of the elements, the defendant may request judicial resolution early on, to prevent the case from going to a jury. This can be by way of a demurrer, motion to dismiss, or motion for summary judgment. The ability to resolve a negligence case without trial is very important to defendants. Without the specific limits provided by the four elements, any plaintiff could claim any defendant was responsible for any loss, and subject him to a costly trial..

The elements allow a defendant to test a plaintiff's accusations before trial, as well as providing a guide to the finder of fact to decide whether the defendant is or is not liable, after the trial. Whether the case is resolved with or without trial again depends heavily on the particular facts of the case, and the ability of the parties to frame the issues to the court. The duty and causation elements in particular give the court the greatest opportunity to take the case from the jury, because they directly involve questions of policy. The court can find that regardless of the disputed facts, if any, the case can be resolved as a matter of law from undisputed facts, because two people in the position of the plaintiff and defendant simply cannot be legally responsible to one another for negligent injury.

On appeal, the court reviewing a decision in a negligence case will analyze in terms of at least one of these elements, depending on the disposition of the case and the question on appeal. For example, if it is an appeal from a final judgment after a jury verdict, the reviewing court will look to see that the jury was properly instructed on each contested element, and that the record shows sufficient evidence for the jury's findings. On an appeal from a dismissal or judgment against the plaintiff without trial, the court will review de novo whether the court below properly found that the plaintiff could not prove any or all of his case.

See also

Footnotes

References

  • Deakin, Simon; Angus Johnston; Basil Markesinis (2003). Markesinis and Deakin's Tort Law. Oxford University Press.

External links

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