Negligence – definition, essential elements, kinds under law of torts

Negligence – definition, essential elements & kinds under the law of torts


Negligence is the breach of a legal duty of care by the defendant which causes damage to the plaintiff. Negligence is described as a failure to do something that a reasonable person would do or do something that a cautious or reasonable person would not do. It can be categorized into:

  • Nonfeasance: It means an act of failure to do anything that a person is supposed to be done. For example, if the company contracted for catering, doesn’t appear on a concerned night, it will be a nonfeasance.
  • Misfeasance: this involves doing an act in such a way that is not done properly. Doing repairs to an old house for example, but doing so by using very low-quality materials, creates a significant risk of a collapse that affects people
  • Malfeasance: here, the defendant has performed such acts that he is not supposed to do. For example, using products that are not allowed and combustible to carry out the repairs of an old building, therefore, converting the building into a firetrap leading to an accident.


  • Criminal negligence is said to occur when a person behaves in a way that is an extraordinary deviation from which a reasonable person might behave in the same or similar circumstances. The difference in civil negligence is that conduct cannot be seen as a radical deviation from the manner in which a rational person will act.
  • In the case of civil negligence, there is less burden of justification since in such a case the plaintiff simply needs to show that it is more probable that the defendant was negligent. However, in the case of criminal negligence, the complainant must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant was incompetent, which is the highest level of proof, which means that the evidence is so compelling that there is no other plausible explanation other than that the defendant behaved with criminal negligence.
  • The liability for a person who was responsible in a case of civil negligence only applies to the degree of the harm caused to the complainant, i.e. compensation for damages. In cases of criminal negligence, the penalty is even more severe and can be sentenced to jail sentences, fines, and probation supervision.
  • For example, if someone driving a vehicle under the influence of drugs and alcohol caused the death of a person, it would lead to criminal negligence, as it is considered to be gross carelessness on their part.   But if the housekeeper in the office was mopping the floor and had neglected to keep a ‘wet floor’ sign, any accident that happened would lead to civil negligence, since there was just a lack of due care on the part of the housekeeper, but no serious negligence.


There are certain prerequisites that are necessary for the tort of negligence to occur.

1. Duty of care:

It means that each person owes a duty of care to another person when conducting an act. While this obligation occurs in all actions, however in negligence, it is of a legal nature and cannot be illegal or unlawful, nor can it be of a spiritual, ethical, or religious nature.

In the case of Stansbele vs. Troman (1948), the decorator was engaged in decorating the building. Soon after the decorator left the house without locking the door or warning, anyone. During his absence, a thief entered the house and stole some of the property the owner of the house claimed from the decorator. It was held that the decorator was responsible because he was reckless in keeping the house open and failing to exercise his duty of care.

2. Duty towards the plaintiff:

A duty occurs when the law acknowledges the relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff and allows the defendant to behave in a certain way towards the plaintiff. It is not enough that the defendant owed a duty of care to the complainant, but it must also be defined and is normally decided by the judge.

In the case of Bourhill v. Young (1943) the plaintiff, who was a fisherwoman, got off the tram car and when she was helped to place her basket on her back, a motorcyclist, after passing the tram, collided with a motor vehicle at a distance of 15 yards on the other side of the tram. The motorcyclist died instantly and the claimant did not witness an accident or a dead body because the tram was standing between her and the location where the accident happened. She had just heard the sound of the crash and as soon as the body had been removed from the accident site, she visited the site and saw some of the blood left on the lane.

In response to this incident, she experienced a nervous shock and gave birth to an 8-month old stillborn child. The lady sued the deceased motorcyclist’s representatives. It was held that the deceased had no duty of care to the litigant and thus could not seek any damages from the deceased’s representative

3. Breach of the duty owed:

It is not enough for the plaintiff to show that the defendant owed him a duty of care, but it must also prove that the defendant violated his duty to the plaintiff. The defendant infringes such a duty by failing to show due caution in the execution of the duty. In other words, the breach of the duty of care means the person who is responsible for the duty of care, has an established duty of care to act responsibly and not to omit or perform any act that it has or does not have to do.

In the case of Ramesh Kumar Nayak vs Union of India(1994), the postal authorities were unable to maintain the compound wall of the post office in good condition as a result of the collapse of which the defendant suffered injuries.  It was held that the postal authorities were responsible because they had a responsibility to maintain the post office premises and because of their breach of duty to do so the wall had collapsed. They were also entitled to pay compensation.

4. Direct cause/ Cause in fact:

In this case, the plaintiff who sues the defendant for negligence is liable to prove that the breach of the duty of the defendant was the real cause of the damages suffered by the defendant. This is sometimes referred to as the “but for” cause, which implies that but for the actions of the defendant, the plaintiff would not have suffered any damages.

5. Remoteness / foreseeable of causes:

Another important condition is the remoteness of the cause/action. A person can be held liable for only those damages caused to the plaintiff that could be foreseeable or were an indirect consequence of the acts of the defendant.  Therefore, in the event of negligence, the defendant is only liable for the damages that the defendant may have foreseen by his actions.

Res Ipsa loquitor:

Res Ipsa loquitor is a Latin term, which refers that “speaks for the thing itself”.

It is considered to be a form of circumstantial evidence that allows the court to decide that the negligence of the defendant resulted in an extraordinary incident that ultimately caused injury to the plaintiff. Although it is usually the responsibility to prove that the defendant behaved negligently on the complainant, but by res ipsa loquitur if the plaintiff provides such circumstantial evidence, it becomes the liability of the defendant to prove that he was not negligent.

This doctrine originated from the case of Byrne vs. Boadle (1863) The plaintiff walked through a warehouse on the road and was injured by a falling barrel of flour which rolled out of the window of the second floor. At the trial, the plaintiff’s counsel argued that the facts were self-explanatory and that the warehouse was negligent because no other reason could account for the plaintiff’s injury.

The following are therefore the three basic conditions for the implementation of this maxim-

(1) The thing causing the harm must be under the control of the defendant or his servants.

(2) The accident must be such that it would not have occurred without negligence in the usual course of things.

(3) There must be no proof of the real cause of the accident.


1. Contributory negligence:

Contributory negligence means that where the plaintiff’s negligence is the immediate cause of the injury, the plaintiff cannot sue the defendant for damages and the defendant may use it as a shield. This is because, in such a situation, the complainant is assumed to be the reason for his own error. It is based on the principle volenti non fit injuria, which states that if anyone knowingly places himself in a situation that may result in injury, he or she is not entitled to seek damages.

The burden of proof of responsibility for negligence lies on the defendant in the first instance and in the absence of such facts, the plaintiff is not obliged to show that it does not exist.

2. Act of God:

The Act of God is a clear, violent, and sudden act of nature that could not have been foreseen by any amount of human foresight and if foreseen, could not have been resisted by any amount of human care and ability. Thus those acts, which are caused by the basic forces of nature, fall under this category. For example, storm, storm, extraordinary high tide, extraordinary rainfall, etc.

If the cause of the injury or death of a person is due to the occurrence of a natural disaster, the defendant shall not be responsible for the same, given that the same is determined by the court of law. This particular protection was alluded to in the case of Nichols v. Marsland(1876) in which the defendant had a series of artificial lakes on his land.

3. Inevitable accident:

An inevitable accident may also be defined as a defense of negligence and refers to an accident that has no chance of being avoided by the exercise of ordinary care, caution, and ability. This is a physically inevitable tragedy.

CHRIST UNIVERSITY 1st year student

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