law of tort

This article is written by Anushka Singh, a second-year student, pursuing BBA-LLB at Unitedworld School of Law, Karnavati University. This article aims to explain the doctrine of remoteness of damage in tort law with the help of relevant case laws.

INTRODUCTION

When a person commits a tort, it has consequences, these consequences in return may have more consequence therefore further leading to a chain of such events. The doctrine of the remoteness of damages is a method or test used to calculate the losses caused due to wrongdoing or breach or to what extent the previously mentioned chain consequences is the defendant responsible for. By this method, the liability of the defendant within reasonable bounds is decided through certain tests. 

The General Principle

The general principle behind the doctrine of the remoteness of damage was laid down in the Court of Exchequer, in the case of Hadley v. Baxendale, the plaintiff’s mill had come to a stop because of a break in their crankshaft. The defendant failed to deliver the broken crankshaft to the manufacturer within the agreed time, which in turn led to delay in restarting the mill. The plaintiff bought a case against the defendant to recover the profits lost because of the delay in restarting the mill. The profits of the mills should be stopped by an unreasonable delay in the delivery of the broken crankshaft to the third person held by the court while rejecting the claim. 

The rule guiding the judges in such cases is when a contract between two parties is breached by one of them, the other party is entitled to receive damages but only if the breach of contract has arisen naturally, fairly and reasonably.

For example- A drunk driver crashed into a truck, which then in turn collided with the side of a small building, leading to the collapse of the building and death of 50 people. The collapse of the building and debris fell onto its surroundings killing more people.

Now in the above example, one can see how one accident had multiple consequences, even though they were not intended nor comprehended beforehand by the defendant. Now in such scenarios on whom does the blame of so many deaths fall? The answer to this question was given by Lord Wright in the case of Liesbosch Dredger v. S.S. Edison-

“The Law cannot take responsibility for all the consequences of a wrongful act; some acts fall outside the scope of its selection, because it was infinite of the law to judge the causes of causes, or consequences of consequences. In the varied web of affairs, the law must abstract some consequences as relevant, not perhaps on grounds of pure logic but simply for practical reasons.”

It was ultimately held by the jurists that the defendants will be liable only for the consequences which were proximate and not remote consequences of his wrongdoing.

Test of Remoteness

Now that we’re aware of, a defendant is held liable for only the proximate consequences of his wrongdoing. Let us look at how it is decided that what consequences are proximate and which remote-

1. All Direct Consequences Test

An individual is held liable for all his direct consequences, even if one could not foresee them beforehand as all consequences which directly come after the wrongdoing are not remote and come under proximate. Further under this test, if one could foresee the damages, one is held liable for all the direct consequences. 

Re Polemis Case (1921)

This case was a landmark judgement in the test of directness. The court of appeal found the test of reasonable foresight to be relevant whereas later the privy council upheld the test of directness. Facts of this case are- Defendant was employed by the charterers of a ship to unload it. A plank was negligently dropped into a hold which caused sparks with chemicals and petrol they were supposed to be unloading. The sparks, in turn, lead to chemicals and petrol catching fire and burning the entire ship. It was ultimately held that even though they could not have foreseen that the ship would be destroyed by the negligently dropping of a plank they were found to be liable as the fire was a direct consequence.

2. The Foreseeability Test

Today this test is preferred over the directness test. Sir Frederick Pollock also advocated for this test, He opined, in cases Rigby v. Hewitt and Greenland v. Chaplin, that the “liability of the defendant is only for those consequences which could have been foreseen by a reasonable man placed in the circumstances of the wrongdoer.” In this test, an individual is held liable only for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of his wrongdoings. It is to be decided by the court if the consequence was foreseeable beforehand or not.

Wagon Mound Case

For a while, the test of foreseeability lost its popularity to test of directness but it was the case of Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd. v. Morts Dock and Engg. Co. Ltd., also popularly known as the Wagon Mound Case that bought it back in the limelight for jurists. 

Facts– The Wagon Mound was moored at a wharf in Sydney Harbour. Due to the negligence, oil spilt into the water and was mixed with the flotsam and floated around to another wharf where a ship was being repaired by welding. Because of the oil the flotsam caught fire and ignited the wharf. The owner of the wharf claimed damage caused to him. 

The Supreme Court held the appellants liable on the precedent of Re Polemis case, but when the matter reached the Privy Council the judgement of the SC was reversed and Re Polemis case declared an unfit for further rulings. It was held that appellants could not have reasonably foreseen the damage to the respondent’s wharf. Therefore, forty years later the Privy Council rejected the test of directness that was upheld in the Re Polemis case.

CONCLUSION

The doctrine of the remoteness of damage is used to decide the compensation to be given when after a breach or wrongdoing. The wrongdoing may have multiple consequences arising from it which are divided into two categories- proximate and remote. Only the consequences that fall in the proximate are the ones the defendant will be held liable for. They’re divided into these categories by the test of directness and test of foreseeability. Today the test of foreseeability is considered to be more relevant than the test of directness, as an individual should be held liable only for probable consequences of his wrongdoing.

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