Negligence – Definition, Essentials and Contributory Negligence

By | May 7, 2017

Introduction and Meaning

In everyday usage, the word negligence means mere carelessness. In legal sense it means failure to exercise standard of care which the doer as a reasonable man should have exercised in the circumstances. In general it is a legal duty to take care when it was reasonably foreseeable that failure to do so was likely to cause injury. Negligence is a mode in which many kinds of harm may be caused by not taking such adequate precautions.


Winfield and Jolowicz- According to them, negligence is a breach of legal duty to take care which results in damage, undesired by the defendant to the plaintiff.

In Blyth v. Birmingham Water Works Co.1856, Alderson B defined negligence¦ it is the omission to do something which a reasonable man would do, or doing something which a reasonable, prudent man would not do.

Essentials of Negligence

In an action for negligence, the plaintiff has to prove the following essentials:-

  1. Duty to take care– One of the essential conditions of negligence is duty to take care. In Grant v. Australian Knitting Mills Ltd, the plaintiff purchased two sets of woolen underwear from a retailer and contacted a skin disease by wearing an underwear. The woolen underwear contained excess of sulphates which the makers failed to remove while washing them. The manufacturers were held liable.
  2. Duty to whomDonoghue v. Stevenson 1932 AC 562 carried the idea further and expanded the scope of duty saying that the duty so raised extends to your neighbour. Explaining so as to who is my neighbor Lord Atkin said that the answer must be the persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omission which are called in question.
  3. Duty must be towards the plaintiff – It is not sufficient that the defendant owed a duty of care towards the plaintiff. It must also be established that the defendant owed a duty of care towards the plaintiff. Case– Bourhill v. Young 1943 AC 92.
  4. Breach of Duty to take care – Yet another essential condition for the liability in negligence is that the plaintiff must prove that the defendant committed a breach of duty to take care or he failed to perform the duty. Case– Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Subhagvanti AIR 1966 SC 1750.
  5. Consequential harm to the plaintiff – The harm may fall into the following classes:- a.) Physical harm b.) Harm to reputation c.) Harm to property d.) Economic Loss e.) Mental Harm. In Achutrao Haribhau Khodwa v. State of Maharastra 1996 2 SCC a cotton mop was left inside the body by the negligence of the doctor. The doctor was held liable.

Contributory Negligence

The standard set out in section 23 of the Civil Liability Act and The Wrongs Act 1954 (Tas) to determine contributory negligence is simply whether a person who suffered harm has engaged in contributory negligence. This is determined on the basis of the standard of the reasonable person, and whether the person has acted as a reasonable person would have is decided on the basis of what the person knew or ought to have known at the time.

Intoxication attracts a presumption of contributory negligence (S5, Civil Liability Act). The courts can reduce a plaintiff’s damages award by 100%, and where intoxication is involved, the minimum reduction with intoxication is 25%, but can be greater.

The Court determines questions of contributory negligence on the basis of fact. To determine contributory negligence, the court uses a twofold test. First they determine whether negligence on the part of the plaintiff occurred, and secondly they attribute a value – usually a percentage, to the negligence. So, for example, a court may decide that a plaintiff contributed 30% to the overall negligence.

Obvious Risks and Voluntary Assumption of Risk – sections 16 17

The common law required that the defendant make out the defence of the plaintiff’s voluntary assumption of risk. With obvious risk cases under the Civil Liability Act, a plaintiff is presumed to be aware of an obvious risk unless s/he can prove on the balance of probabilities that s/he was unaware of the risk (s16(2)). However, a defendant must still establish the consent of the plaintiff to the obvious risk.

Moreover, section 17 has taken away the need to warn in respect of obvious risks unless a plaintiff has requested advice or information about the risk from the defendant (s17(2)(a)). What is determined as an obvious risk is determined on the basis of the reasonable person. The obvious risk provisions establish knowledge on the part of the plaintiff, but not consent. Only a voluntary assumption of risk constitutes a complete defence to negligence, and so, a defendant must establish consent. Courts are also very restrictive in finding obvious risk.

Dangerous recreational activities

Sections 19 and 20 have altered the common law in respect of dangerous recreational activities. The Civil Liability Act states that people engaged in “dangerous recreation activities”, being a recreational activity that involves a significant degree of risk of physical harm to a person, undertake the activity at their own risk. A defendant will not be held liable for a breach of duty for harm suffered as a result of a dangerous recreational activity, if the potential harm is an obvious risk, and participants in the dangerous recreational activity are assumed to be aware of the risk.

This is voluntary assumption of risk: knowledge and consent. Courts are very restrictive in classifying an activity as a dangerous recreational activity (DRA). Bungee jumping, however, is one such DRA. For example, if a person engages in bungee jumping, and the person winds up a paraplegic, they are assumed to have been aware of the obvious risk, even if they were not, and so can not make out a rebuttal of the presumption of that knowledge.

By – Prerana Anand, UPES Dehradun

(Editor @ Legal Bites)

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