Claims Ireland

The Independent Service that Assesses Compensation Claims

Negligence

General

"The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or ommisions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour." (Donoghue vs. Stevenson, a 1932 English case.)

Negligence is the most important field of tort law as it governs most activities of modern society. In a nutshell, to establish negligence, you have to show the "A B Cs" of negligence: (a) a duty of care must exist between the person injured and the person responsible for that injury; (b) conduct of the defendant fell short of that duty of care; and (c) resultant damages.

Standard of Care: The "Reasonable Man"

"Negligence is the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided upon those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do. The defendants might have been liable for negligence, if, unintentionally, they omitted to do that which a reasonable person would have done, or did that which a person taking reasonable precautions would not have done." (Blyth v. Birmingham Water Works (1856) 11 Ex. 781)

So the law judges all persons according to one standard. It matters not if the defendant is not a rocket scientist. It is said that the law "does not attempt to see men as God sees them" but, instead, expects all to act as a reasonably intelligent person "who makes prudence a guide to his conduct." The judge is not allowed to superimpose his or her standards upon a given situation, complete with the judge's weaknesses and biaises. Instead, the judge must superimpose the standard of the "reasonable man." That is why, in negligence cases which go before a jury, the judge cannot tell the jury to ask themselves if "they would have acted differently," but "how would the reasonable person have acted."

Obviously, the standard of this mythical "reasonable person" is somewhat intangible. But, as was said in Carlson v. Chochinov (1947): "the ideal of that person exists only in the minds of men, and exists in different forms in the minds of different men. The standard is therefore far from fixed as stable. But it is the best all-round guide that the law can devise."

This principle of reasonableness extends itself to factual situations. For example, we are not expected to forsee all the possible risks associated with any activity. Most everyday things that we do come with a small risk of harm to others. In a 1951 English case, Bolton v. Stone, a cricket ball was hit off a cricket field and struck a pedestrian. The evidence showed that a cricket ball had only been hit off the field six times in the past 30 years and, in the 90 year history of the club, no one had ever been hurt by a cricket ball being sent over the fence during the course of a match. "People must guard against reasonable probabilities," the judge wrote, "but they are not bound against fantastic possibilities."

The more dangerous the activity to others, the higher the expectations on a person to foresee risk to others.

Compliance with customs, such as professional customs, generally will exonerate a defendant as it provides excellent proof of what is "reasonable" conduct. But, beware: judges are fully enabled to find a custom as lacking in providing reasonable care and, therefore, so would the conduct that may have been guided by that custom.