This is authored by Janaki Nair a 3rd year B.A LLB student in Symbiosis Law School Pune. The following article revolves around the topic of the law of Torts and how ‘inevitable accident’ serves as a valid defense on that topic.
One of the many instances in which the law of torts differs from other law is the purpose with which it is imposed. The law of torts deals with ‘civil wrongs’ – wrongs that are civil and therefore, they are not deterred based on the criminal form of punishments. So, tort law deals with civil wrongs that are usually punished in the form of payment of damages. Damages refer to the money–based compensation that is granted to the aggrieved plaintiff by the respondent so that the former is compensated for the sufferings that s/he/they went through because of the wrongs committed by the latter. Damages can be of three types – nominal, compensatory, and punitive – in nature. If the aggrieved has a right to claim damages, then the respondent has the right to counterclaim them by bringing up good defenses.
The court has to hear both of the sides – the complaint as well as the defenses and then arrive at a proper decision. There are various defenses in the law of torts – volenti non fit injuria, necessity, private defense, an act of god, etc. The current paper will be about the defense of an ‘inevitable accident’.
The term ‘inevitable’, according to the particular defense, refers to some sort of event or action that could not have been avoided even with all necessary care and precaution taken from the side of the wrongdoer. Sir Pollock, a famous jurist of the 17th century, defined an inevitable accident as something that could not have been avoided despite precautions taken by a reasonable and prudent individual. There needs to be the existence of two principles that need to be satisfied under the defense of Inevitable accident and they are:
- The damage was unintentional.
- The circumstance surrounding the damage could not have been avoided by the person despite all care, caution as well as a skill that could have been employed by the person who committed the wrong.
A daily life illustration of an inevitable accident can be as follows: A was driving past a fairly busy junction. The car undergoes routine maintenance and was in tip–top condition. Suddenly, while crossing the signal, the brakes of the car failed which resulted in A losing control and swerving left, resulting in it hitting a bullock cart that was on that particular side. A can lead the defense of ‘inevitable accident’ as she took all the measures to ensure that there would not be any mechanical failures. However, she could not have predicted the sudden brake failure. As stated above, the damage is done to the bullock cart and its driver was unintentional; and the car-driver had taken all necessary precautions that she could have given the situation.
Judiciary on Inevitable Accident
The court, while considering the plea of an inevitable accident will look for the following:
- Whether the occurred event was, in actuality, outside the scope of control of the tort–doer.
- Whether the tort–doer had exercised a reasonable amount of precaution given the situation.
- Whether the tort–doer could have avoided the situation if the precaution was exercised.
The courts that talked about the defense of inevitable accidents had to discuss who the burden of proof would rest on. The first to decide on that was the case of Homes v. Mather, (1875) LR 10 Ex 261, where the court had announced that the burden of proof existed on the plaintiff to prove that:
- the defense was built on lies,
- the respondent had scope to foresee the event,
- the respondent did not take necessary precautions.
However, this was overruled in a subsequent case of the name Stanley v. Powell, (1891) 1 QB 86. In the case of Stanley, the plaintiff and defendant were shooting members who went for a pheasant shooting party. The defendant aimed the gun to shoot at a pheasant, but the bullet, unfortunately, bounced from a nearby object and shot the plaintiff who got injured. The plaintiff took the matter to court wherein the defendant pleaded the defense of the inevitable accident. The court favored the defendant on the topic by stating that there was no way in which the defendant could have foreseen the bullet ricocheting and striking the plaintiff. Another important decision, in this case, was that the burden of proof rests on the defendant who has to prove that his actions arose from circumstances that were beyond the control of the defendant.
Similarly, in the case of Hidasi v. Hidasi, 2011 BCSC 583, the court again favored the defendant wherein he had taken necessary care and precaution to drive on a slippery road, but the car still slipped and injured the plaintiff. The court had accepted the defense which stated that the mechanical failure of the car which caused the slip was beyond the scope of control or foreseeability of the defendant.
After this, there came several case laws that discussed whether the onus of proof should rest on the defendant or the plaintiff. By the end, most of these courts reached a more or less unanimous decision of letting the onus shift between both the parties on a case-to-case basis.
The most famous Indian case on this subject is A. Krishna Patra v. Odisha State Electricity Board 2 (1998) ACC 367, 1998 ACJ 155, AIR 997 ORI 109, which dealt with the difference between negligence and inevitable accident as tort defenses. The defense in question had pleaded negligence whereas the defendant pleaded the defense of an inevitable accident, where a woman died after getting electrocuted by a naked electrician lying on the road. The court had stated that the electricity board cannot plead the defense of the inevitable accident as they had not taken the proper precaution and care by checking up on the electrician from time – to – time as an employee of their company. Therefore, compensation of Rs.50,000 was awarded to the defendant company to be paid to the aggrieved plaintiff.
Act of God and Inevitable Accident
The tort defense of Act of God and Inevitable Accident are frequently held to be similar because both of them satisfy the following – events that are beyond the scope of control of the tort – doer. However, the main difference between the two is that the former is restricted to acts of nature whereas the latter is not.
An illustration of the two would be as follows: A was driving through a narrow road on top of a bridge that is the only one available to reach his relative’s house. He had only decided to drive after checking for the weather update several times the previous day which showed sunny and pleasant weather. However, halfway through the road, a severe rainstorm started coming up, and right before A could park to the side, the bridge broke under the thunder causing the car to skid and collide with a pole, injuring the plaintiff standing near it. This can be an Act of God.
On the other hand, A was driving through the same bridge. But, if the bridge was nearing wear and tear, and the movement of the car caused it to collapse, then, it was due to a man–made error and therefore, will come under ‘inevitable accident’.
In conclusion, the inevitable accident is a bit tricky to deal with as the court needs to be sure whether the case falls under an act of negligence or a genuine accident that was not foreseeable by the wrongdoer. This is, however, an extremely helpful defense for drivers who commit injuries without meaning to and without being able to foresee them.
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