Negligence is a legal concept that plays a central role in many civil lawsuits, including personal injury and medical malpractice cases. As a result, case law has developed over time to help define and refine the elements of negligence. In this article, we’ll explore some of the most notable negligence case law and its impact on this legal concept.
What is Negligence?
Negligence refers to a situation where an individual or entity breaches their duty of care resulting in harm or injury to another person. To prove negligence in a legal case, four elements must be present: duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages.
Negligence Case Law
Here are some notable cases that have helped to shape the legal concept of negligence.
Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932)
This landmark case established the principle of duty of care in negligence cases. The plaintiff, Mrs. Donoghue, found a decomposed snail in a bottle of ginger beer and sued the manufacturer, Stevenson. The court ruled in her favor, stating that manufacturers owed a duty of care to their customers to ensure their products were safe and free from harmful defects.
Bolton v. Stone (1951)
This case involved a cricket ball hitting a woman who lived near the cricket ground. The woman sued the cricket club, arguing that they hadn’t done enough to prevent the ball from leaving the ground. The court ruled in favor of the cricket club, stating that the likelihood of someone being hit by a ball was so low that it didn’t constitute a breach of duty.
Caparo Industries plc v. Dickman (1990)
This case established the three-part test in determining whether a duty of care is owed. The test requires that the harm caused must be foreseeable, there must be a relationship of proximity between the parties, and it must be fair, just, and reasonable to impose a duty of care.
Osman v. Ferguson (1993)
This case established the principle of proximity in negligence cases. The plaintiff’s son was killed by a teacher who had been stalking him. The court ruled that the teacher owed a duty of care to the student, even though they had no direct relationship.
Montgomery v. Lanarkshire Health Board (2015)
This case had a significant impact on medical negligence, specifically informed consent. The plaintiff argued that she was not adequately informed of the risks associated with a planned C-section, which resulted in birth complications for her child. The court ruled in her favor, stating that doctors owed a duty of care to inform patients of the material risks associated with a medical procedure.
Negligence case law has helped to clarify and refine the elements of negligence, shaping how it is applied in legal cases today. By understanding cases such as Donoghue v. Stevenson and Montgomery v. Lanarkshire Health Board, plaintiffs and defendants alike can better understand the duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages that must be present in negligence cases.
PALSGRAFF V. LONG ISLAND RAILROAD
The quintessential case involving the extent of liability in a negligence claim is Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co., Ct. of App. of N.Y., 248 N.Y. 339, 162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928). Palsgraff involved a man climbing aboard a Long Island Railroad train carrying a package. An employee of the railroad aided the man in getting on the train and while doing so the man dropped a package that, unbeknownst to the employee or anyone else other than the man carrying the package, contained fireworks. When the fireworks fell to the ground it caused a minor explosion that sent shockwaves through the train car causing injury to Palsgraff (the plaintiff). Subsequently Palsgraff sued the Long Island Railroad in tort for negligence. Both the NY State trial court and the Appellate court found in favor of the plaintiff and on appeal the Court of Appeals of NY (New York’s highest court) reversed, finding for the defendant, Long Island Railroad.
In making its decision the court confronted two (2) issues: (1) how is the duty of care that is owed determined; and (2) to whom does a party owe the duty of care to?
In determining who the duty of care is owed the court found that the duty must be owed to a person that can reasonably be foreseen under the circumstances. Here, although the defendant, railroad company, owed a duty of care to the man carrying the package the defendant DID NOT owe a duty of care to the plaintiff because it was unreasonably foreseeable that the package contained fireworks and that the mishandling of the package would result in injury to the plaintiff, who was at the other end of the car. The court referred to this as the “Zone of Danger.”
This is a perfect example of how an injury that may have resulted from a defendant’s negligence may not be imputed upon them because the DUTY OF CARE that the defendant had was to all foreseeable plaintiffs and the injury that resulted from the firework explosion was not forseeable.
BYRNE V. BOADLE
To grasp the idea of proximate and actual causation the case of Byrne v. Boadle, 2 H. & C. 722, 159 Eng. Rep. 299 (Exch. 1863) shows a cut and dry model. This case involves the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur, which essentially means, “The thing speaks for itself.”
The plaintiff in this action was walking down the street when a barrel fell upon him while directly under the defendant’s flour shop. At trial a witness explained that he saw a barrel fall from the window of the flour shop upon the plaintiff’s head but there was no evidence of the reason for it.
The court found for the plaintiff citing the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor. The court surmised that the facts, in and of themselves, showed that the barrel was in the possession of the defendant at the time and he had control over it. The courts view was that there is a presumption of negligence when a party is in sole control of the instrument of the injury and that the injury would not have existed without negligence.
This is a prime example of actual and proximate causation. The court found that the defendant was the actual cause because “but for the negligence of defendant the barrel would not have rolled out the window.” The court also found the defendant to be the proximate cause. Since there were no intervening forces and the barrel fell directly from the possession of the defendant unto the head of plaintiff there were no intervening forces and it was completely foreseeable that due to the defendant’s mishandling of the barrel this injury could reasonably occur.