Law of Torts

Negligence as a tort

The jurisprudential concept of negligence defies any precise definition. Eminent jurists and leading judgments have assigned various meanings to negligence. The concept as has been acceptable to Indian jurisprudential thought is well-stated in the Law of Torts, Ratanlal & Dhirajlal (Twenty-fourth Edition 2002, edited by Justice G.P. Singh). It is stated (at p.441-442) — “Negligence is the breach of a duty caused by the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do. Actionable negligence consists in the neglect of the use of ordinary care or skill towards a person to whom the defendant owes the duty of observing ordinary care and skill, by which neglect the plaintiff has suffered injury to his person or property…. The definition involves three constituents of negligence: (1) A legal duty to exercise due care on the part of the party complained of towards the party complaining the former’s conduct within the scope of the duty; (2) breach of the said duty; and (3) consequential damage. Cause of action for negligence arises only when damage occurs; for, damage is a necessary ingredient of this tort.”

According to Charles worth & Percy on Negligence (Tenth Edition, 2001), in current forensic speech, negligence has three meanings. They are: (i) a state of mind, in which it is opposed to intention; (ii) careless conduct; and (iii) the breach of duty to take care that is imposed by either common or statute law. All three meanings are applicable in different circumstances but any one of them does not necessarily exclude the other meanings. (Para 1.01) The essential components of negligence, as recognized, are three: “duty”, “breach” and “resulting damage”, that is to say:-

  1. the existence of a duty to take care, which is owed by the defendant to the complainant;
  2. the failure to attain that standard of care, prescribed by the law, thereby committing a breach of such duty; and

  3. damage, which is both causally connected with such breach and recognized by the law, has been suffered by the complainant. (Para 1.23)

If the claimant satisfies the court on the evidence that these three ingredients are made out, the defendant should be held liable in negligence. (Para 1.24)

Negligence — as a tort and as a crime

  1. The term ‘negligence’ is used for the purpose of fastening the defendant with liability under the Civil Law and, at times, under the Criminal Law. It is contended on behalf of the respondents that in both the jurisdictions, negligence is negligence, and jurisprudentially no distinction can be drawn between negligence under civil law and negligence under criminal law. The submission so made cannot be countenanced inasmuch as it is based upon a total departure from the established terrain of thought running ever since the beginning of the emergence of the concept of negligence upto the modern times. Generally speaking, it is the amount of damages incurred which is determinative of the extent of liability in tort; but in criminal law it is not the amount of damages but the amount and degree of negligence that is determinative of liability. To fasten liability in Criminal Law, the degree of negligence has to be higher than that of negligence enough to fasten liability for damages in Civil Law. The essential ingredient of mens rea cannot be excluded from consideration when the charge in a criminal court consists of criminal negligence. In R. v. Lawrence, [1981] 1 All ER 974 (HL), Lord Diplock spoke in a Bench of five and the other Law Lords agreed with him. He reiterated his opinion in R. v. Caldwell 1981(1) All ER 961 (HL) and dealt with the concept of recklessness as constituting mens rea in criminal law. His Lordship warded against adopting the simplistic approach of treating all problems of criminal liability as soluble by classifying the test of liability as being “subjective” or “objective”, and said “Recklessness on the part of the doer of an act does presuppose that there is something in the circumstances that would have drawn the attention of an ordinary prudent individual to the possibility that his act was capable of causing the kind of serious harmful consequences that the section which creates the offence was intended to prevent, and that the risk of those harmful consequences occurring was not so slight that an ordinary prudent individual would feel justified in treating them as negligible. It is only when this is so that the doer of the act is acting ‘recklessly’ if, before doing the act, he either fails to give any thought to the possibility of there being any such risk or, having recognized that there was such risk, he nevertheless goes on to do it.”
  • The moral culpability of recklessness is not located in a desire to cause harm. It resides in the proximity of the reckless state of mind to the state of mind present when there is an intention to cause harm. There is, in other words, a disregard for the possible consequences. The consequences entailed in the risk may not be wanted, and indeed the actor may hope that they do not occur, but this hope nevertheless fails to inhibit the taking of the risk. Certain types of violation, called optimizing violations, may be motivated by thrill-seeking. These are clearly reckless.

  • In order to hold the existence of criminal rashness or criminal negligence it shall have to be found out that the rashness was of such a degree as to amount to taking a hazard knowing that the hazard was of such a degree that injury was most likely imminent. The element of criminality is introduced by the accused having run the risk of doing such an act with recklessness and indifference to the consequences. Lord Atkin in his speech in Andrews v. Director of Public Prosecutions, [1937] A.C. 576, stated, “Simple lack of care — such as will constitute civil liability is not enough; for purposes of the criminal law there are degrees of negligence; and a very high degree of negligence is required to be proved before the felony is established.” Thus, a clear distinction exists between “simple lack of care” incurring civil liability and “very high degree of negligence” which is required in criminal cases. Lord Porter said in his speech in the same case — “A higher degree of negligence has always been demanded in order to establish a criminal offence than is sufficient to create civil liability. ( & Percy, ibid, Para 1.13)

    The fore-quoted statement of law in Andrews has been noted with approval by this Court in Syad Akbar Vs. State of Karnataka, . The Supreme Court has dealt with and pointed out with reasons the distinction between negligence in civil law and in criminal law. Their Lordships have opined that there is a marked difference as to the effect of evidence, viz. the proof, in civil and criminal proceedings. In civil proceedings, a mere preponderance of probability is sufficient, and the defendant is not necessarily entitled to the benefit of every reasonable doubt; but in criminal proceedings, the persuasion of guilt must amount to such a moral certainty as convinces the mind of the Court, as a reasonable man, beyond all reasonable doubt. Where negligence is an essential ingredient of the offence, the negligence to be established by the prosecution must be culpable or gross and not the negligence merely based upon an error of judgment.

    Law laid down by Straight, J. in the case Reg v. Idu Beg (1881) 3 All. 776, has been held good in cases and noticed in Bhalchandra Waman Pathe v. State of Maharashtra 1968 Mh.L.J. 423 — a three-Judge Bench decision of this Court. It has been held that while negligence is an 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; criminal negligence is the gross and culpable neglect or failure to exercise that reasonable and proper care and precaution to guard against injury either to the public generally or to an individual in particular, which having regard to all the circumstances out of which the charge has arisen, it was the imperative duty of the accused person to have adopted.

    We sum up our conclusions as under:-

    (1) Negligence is the breach of a duty caused by omission to do something which a reasonable man guided by 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 definition of negligence as given in Law of Torts, Ratanlal & Dhirajlal (edited by Justice G.P. Singh), referred to hereinabove, holds good. Negligence becomes actionable on account of injury resulting from the act or omission amounting to negligence attributable to the person sued. The essential components of negligence are three: ‘duty’, ‘breach’ and ‘resulting damage’.

    (2) Negligence in the context of medical profession necessarily calls for a treatment with a difference. To infer rashness or negligence on the part of a professional, in particular a doctor, additional considerations apply. A case of occupational negligence is different from one of professional negligence. A simple lack of care, an error of judgment or an accident, is not proof of negligence on the part of a medical professional. So long as a doctor follows a practice acceptable to the medical profession of that day, he cannot be held liable for negligence merely because a better alternative course or method of treatment was also available or simply because a more skilled doctor would not have chosen to follow or resort to that practice or procedure which the accused followed. When it comes to the failure of taking precautions what has to be seen is whether those precautions were taken which the ordinary experience of men has found to be sufficient; a failure to use special or extraordinary precautions which might have prevented the particular happening cannot be the standard for judging the alleged negligence. So also, the standard of care, while assessing the practice as adopted, is judged in the light of knowledge available at the time of the incident, and not at the date of trial. Similarly, when the charge of negligence arises out of failure to use some particular equipment, the charge would fail if the equipment was not generally available at that particular time (that is, the time of the incident) at which it is suggested it should have been used.

    (3) A professional may be held liable for negligence on one of the two findings: either he was not possessed of the requisite skill which he professed to have possessed, or, he did not exercise, with reasonable competence in the given case, the skill which he did possess. The standard to be applied for judging, whether the person charged has been negligent or not, would be that of an ordinary competent person exercising ordinary skill in that profession. It is not possible for every professional to possess the highest level of expertise or skills in that branch which he practices. A highly skilled professional may be possessed of better qualities, but that cannot be made the basis or the yardstick for judging the performance of the professional proceeded against on indictment of negligence.

    (4) The test for determining medical negligence as laid down in Bolam’s case [1957] 1 W.L.R. 582 holds good in its applicability in India.

    (5) The jurisprudential concept of negligence differs in civil and criminal law. What may be negligence in civil law may not necessarily be negligence in criminal law. For negligence to amount to an offence, the element of mens rea must be shown to exist. For an act to amount to criminal negligence, the degree of negligence should be much higher i.e. gross or of a very high degree. Negligence which is neither gross nor of a higher degree may provide a ground for action in civil law but cannot form the basis for prosecution.

    (6) The word ‘gross’ has not been used in Section 304A of IPC, yet it is settled that in criminal law negligence or recklessness, to be so held, must be of such a high degree as to be ‘gross’. The expression ‘rash or negligent act’ as occurring in Section 304A of the IPC has to be read as qualified by the word ‘grossly’.

    (7) To prosecute a medical professional for negligence under criminal law it must be shown that the accused did something or failed to do something which in the given facts and circumstances no medical professional in his ordinary senses and prudence would have done or failed to do. The hazard taken by the accused doctor should be of such a nature that the injury which resulted was most likely imminent.

    (8) Res ipsa loquitur is only a rule of evidence and operates in the domain of civil law specially in cases of torts and helps in determining the onus of proof in actions relating to negligence. It cannot be pressed in service for determining per se the liability for negligence within the domain of criminal law. Res ipsa loquitur has, if at all, a limited application in trial on a charge of criminal negligence.


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