Relevancy of Motive in Tortious Liability

By | December 10, 2020
Relevancy of Motive in Tortious Liability

It is important to know whether the motive behind an action is relevant to constitute tortious liability or not even though the motive is largely irrelevant in penal laws, except to determine the punishment. This article discusses the relevancy of motive in tortious liability and the exceptions to the rule. Moreover, it is very often that “motive” and “intention” are used interchangeably. Thus, this article will also explore the distinction between them.

I. Introduction

If we look at the etymology of the word “tort”, it denotes conduct which is “crooked”, i.e., not straight or right. Although tort has defied a specific definition agreed upon by all, various attempts have been made over the years to define it by listing its constituent elements. Some of the definitions are:

“Tortious liability arises from the breach of a duty primarily fixed by law. This duty is towards persons generally and its breach is redressable by an action for unliquidated damages.” – Winfield

“Tort is a civil wrong for which the remedy is a common-law action for unliquidated damages, and which is not exclusively the breach of a contract or the breach of a trust, or other merely equitable obligation.” – Salmond

“Tort is an act or omission (not merely the breach of a duty arising out of personal relations, or undertaken by a contract which is related to harm suffered by a determinate person, giving rise to a civil remedy which is not an action of contract.”- Pollock 

Thus, we can zero in on three elements that are essential for constituting a tortious liability:

  1. a wrongful act committed by the defendant
  2. legal damage to the plaintiff.

One question that may come to mind after going through these definitions is, whether the mental element of motive plays any role in constituting tortious liability?

II. The Relevancy Of Motive in Tortious Liability

While intention and motive are used interchangeably in layman’s language, they are considered very different in law. Generally, the law considers motive irrelevant in almost all the liabilities and gives consideration only to intention.

The motive is basically a person’s state of mind. Motive inspires the person to do an act, for example, hatred/ jealousy towards other people and intention becomes the immediate purpose, i.e., causing harm to another, causing pain/discomfort. Therefore, motive refers not to the intended consequences, but to the reason those consequences are desirable to the actor, i.e., jealousy/hatred as explained above.

The motive is the cause that moves individuals to induce a certain action. However, the motive is not essential for a tort action to be maintained. Therefore, a wrongful act does not become legal by virtue of a good motive, and similarly, a lawful act does not become wrongful due to a bad motive.

The motive is generally irrelevant in tort law [1]. The decisions in Bradford Corporation v Pickles [2] are treated as one of the earliest decisions that settled the irrelevancy of motive in tort. In this case, the plaintiff owned land below which there were water springs from which he used to supply water to the town. There was a natural reservoir under the defendant’s land and water flowed from that reservoir down to the springs of the plaintiffs. The defendant, however, sank a shaft into his land to alter water flow. This significantly reduced the amount of water flowing into the springs of the plaintiffs.

There was sufficient proof to suggest that the defendant was following this course of action, not to give himself any immediate advantage, but merely to deprive the plaintiffs of water. The plaintiffs insisted that this was malicious and that they had the right to an injunction to stop the defendant from acting in this way. It was held that it’s not a case where the state of mind of the person doing the act can affect the right to do it. If it was a lawful act, however ill the motive might be, he had a right to do it.

In the case of Vishnu Basudeo v. T.H.S Pearse[3] and Town Area Committee v. Prabhu Dayal[4], the courts held that it is to be seen if the act is lawful, then the motive for the act is of little significance.

Additionally, the Allen v. Flood[5] settled that an act not otherwise unlawful cannot generally be made actionable by an averment that it was done with malice or evil motive.

The case of South Wales Miners’ Federation v. Glamorgan Coal Company[6], is an illustration to explain that a wrongful act is not converted into a lawful act by a good motive. The plaintiffs, the owners of coal mines, brought an action against the defendants, a miners’ union, for inducing its workmen to make the breach of contract of their employment by ordering them to take certain holidays. The act of the defendants was not actuated by any ill will but the object was to keep up the price of coal by which the wages were regulated. The House of Lords held the defendants liable.

Hence, as a general rule, the motive is not relevant to determine a person’s liability in the Law of Torts [7]. A wrongful act does not become lawful merely because the motive is good. Similarly, a lawful act does not become wrongful because of a bad motive or malice.

III. Exceptions to the Rule

In the following cases, the motive becomes relevant in determining liability under the law of torts:

  1. In the torts of deceit, conspiracy, malicious prosecution and injurious falsehood, one of the essentials to be proved by the plaintiff is malice on the part of the defendant.
  2. In certain cases of defamation, when qualified privilege or fair comment is pleaded as a defence, motive becomes relevant. The defence of qualified privilege is available if the publication was made in good faith. The presence of malice or evil motive negatives good faith and the defendant cannot avoid his liability by the defence of qualified privilege in such a case.
  3. Malice or evil motive may result in aggravation damages.

IV. Conclusion

The irrelevancy of motive in determining tortious liability is a generally accepted wisdom. Tort law only considers the intention of a person while determining liability. However, in certain exceptional circumstances, the motive may be taken into consideration while determining liability, such as in the tort of deceit, conspiracy, malicious prosecution, and in the case of defamation when the defence of qualified privilege or fair comment is pleaded.


[1]Martin A Kotler, ‘Motivation and Tort Law: Acting for Economic Gain As a Suspect Motive’ (1988) 41 Vand L Rev 63.

[2][1895] AC 587.

[3]AIR 1949 NAG 364

[4]AIR 1975 All 132

[5]1898 AC 1.

[6](1905) A.C. 239

[7]Fred F Lawrence, ‘Motive as an Element in Tort’ (1919) 12 Me L Rev 47.

  1. Law of Torts; Notes, Case Laws And Study Material
  2. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
Author: Anamika Gandhi

Student at National Law University, Odisha

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