After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:
In civil litigation, contract and tort claims are by far the most numerous. The law attempts to adjust for harms done by awarding damages to a successful plaintiff who demonstrates that the defendant was the cause of the plaintiff’s losses. Torts can be intentional torts, negligent torts, or strict liability torts. Employers must be aware that in many circumstances, their employees may create liability in tort. This chapter explains the different kind of torts, as well as available defenses to tort claims.
The term tort is the French equivalent of the English word wrong. The word tort is also derived from the Latin word tortum, which means twisted or crooked or wrong, in contrast to the word rectum, which means straight (rectitude uses that Latin root). Thus conduct that is twisted or crooked and not straight is a tort. The term was introduced into the English law by the Norman jurists.
Long ago, tort was used in everyday speech; today it is left to the legal system. A judge will instruct a jury that a tort is usually defined as a wrong for which the law will provide a remedy, most often in the form of money damages. The law does not remedy all “wrongs.” The preceding definition of tort does not reveal the underlying principles that divide wrongs in the legal sphere from those in the moral sphere. Hurting someone’s feelings may be more devastating than saying something untrue about him behind his back; yet the law will not provide a remedy for saying something cruel to someone directly, while it may provide a remedy for "defaming" someone, orally or in writing, to others.
Although the word is no longer in general use, tort suits are the stuff of everyday headlines. More and more people injured by exposure to a variety of risks now seek redress (some sort of remedy through the courts). Headlines boast of multimillion-dollar jury awards against doctors who bungled operations, against newspapers that libeled subjects of stories, and against oil companies that devastate entire ecosystems. All are examples of tort suits.
The law of torts developed almost entirely in the common-law courts; that is, statutes passed by legislatures were not the source of law that plaintiffs usually relied on. Usually, plaintiffs would rely on the common law (judicial decisions). Through thousands of cases, the courts have fashioned a series of rules that govern the conduct of individuals in their noncontractual dealings with each other. Through contracts, individuals can craft their own rights and responsibilities toward each other. In the absence of contracts, tort law holds individuals legally accountable for the consequences of their actions. Those who suffer losses at the hands of others can be compensated.
Many acts (like homicide) are both criminal and tortious. But torts and crimes are different, and the difference is worth noting. A crime is an act against the people as a whole. Society punishes the murderer; it does not usually compensate the family of the victim. Tort law, on the other hand, views the death as a private wrong for which damages are owed. In a civil case, the tort victim or his family, not the state, brings the action. The judgment against a defendant in a civil tort suit is usually expressed in monetary terms, not in terms of prison times or fines, and is the legal system’s way of trying to make up for the victim’s loss.
There are three kinds of torts: intentional torts, negligent torts, and strict liability torts. Intentional torts arise from intentional acts, whereas unintentional torts often result from carelessness (e.g., when a surgical team fails to remove a clamp from a patient’s abdomen when the operation is finished). Both intentional torts and negligent torts imply some fault on the part of the defendant. In strict liability torts, by contrast, there may be no fault at all, but tort law will sometimes require a defendant to make up for the victim’s losses even where the defendant was not careless and did not intend to do harm.
There is a clear moral basis for recovery through the legal system where the defendant has been careless (negligent) or has intentionally caused harm. Using the concepts that we are free and autonomous beings with basic rights, we can see that when others interfere with either our freedom or our autonomy, we will usually react negatively. As the old saying goes, “Your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose.” The law takes this even one step further: under intentional tort law, if you frighten someone by swinging your arms toward the tip of her nose, you may have committed the tort of assault, even if there is no actual touching (battery).
Under a capitalistic market system, rational economic rules also call for no negative externalities. That is, actions of individuals, either alone or in concert with others, should not negatively impact third parties. The law will try to compensate third parties who are harmed by your actions, even as it knows that a money judgment cannot actually mend a badly injured victim.
Figure 7.1 Dimensions of Tort Liability
Tort principles can be viewed along different dimensions. One is the fault dimension. Like criminal law, tort law requires a wrongful act by a defendant for the plaintiff to recover. Unlike criminal law, however, there need not be a specific intent. Since tort law focuses on injury to the plaintiff, it is less concerned than criminal law about the reasons for the defendant’s actions. An innocent act or a relatively innocent one may still provide the basis for liability. Nevertheless, tort law—except for strict liability—relies on standards of fault, or blameworthiness.
The most obvious standard is willful conduct. If the defendant (often called the tortfeasorA person or legal entity that commits a tort.—i.e., the one committing the tort) intentionally injures another, there is little argument about tort liability. Thus all crimes resulting in injury to a person or property (murder, assault, arson, etc.) are also torts, and the plaintiff may bring a separate lawsuit to recover damages for injuries to his person, family, or property.
Most tort suits do not rely on intentional fault. They are based, rather, on negligent conduct that in the circumstances is careless or poses unreasonable risks of causing damage. Most automobile accident and medical malpractice suits are examples of negligence suits.
The fault dimension is a continuum. At one end is the deliberate desire to do injury. The middle ground is occupied by careless conduct. At the other end is conduct that most would consider entirely blameless, in the moral sense. The defendant may have observed all possible precautions and yet still be held liable. This is called strict liabilityLiability without fault. This may arise when the defendant engages in ultrahazardous activities or where defective product creates an unreasonable risk of injury to consumers or others.. An example is that incurred by the manufacturer of a defective product that is placed on the market despite all possible precautions, including quality-control inspection. In many states, if the product causes injury, the manufacturer will be held liable.
Tort liability varies by the type of injury caused. The most obvious type is physical harm to the person (assault, battery, infliction of emotional distress, negligent exposure to toxic pollutants, wrongful death) or property (trespass, nuisance, arson, interference with contract). Mental suffering can be redressed if it is a result of physical injury (e.g., shock and depression following an automobile accident). A few states now permit recovery for mental distress alone (a mother’s shock at seeing her son injured by a car while both were crossing the street). Other protected interests include a person’s reputation (injured by defamatory statements or writings), privacy (injured by those who divulge secrets of his personal life), and economic interests (misrepresentation to secure an economic advantage, certain forms of unfair competition).
A third element in the law of torts is the excuse for committing an apparent wrong. The law does not condemn every act that ultimately results in injury.
One common rule of exculpation is assumption of riskA defense to a plaintiff’s action in tort where the plaintiff has knowingly and voluntarily entered into a risky activity that results in injury.. A baseball fan who sits along the third base line close to the infield assumes the risk that a line drive foul ball may fly toward him and strike him. He will not be permitted to complain in court that the batter should have been more careful or that management should have either warned him or put up a protective barrier.
Another excuse is negligence of the plaintiff. If two drivers are careless and hit each other on the highway, some states will refuse to permit either to recover from the other. Still another excuse is consent: two boxers in the ring consent to being struck with fists (but not to being bitten on the ear).
Since the purpose of tort law is to compensate the victim for harm actually done, damages are usually measured by the extent of the injury. Expressed in money terms, these include replacement of property destroyed, compensation for lost wages, reimbursement for medical expenses, and dollars that are supposed to approximate the pain that is suffered. Damages for these injuries are called compensatory damagesAn award of money damages to make the plaintiff whole, as opposed to additional damages (punitive) that punish the defendant or make an example of defendant..
In certain instances, the courts will permit an award of punitive damagesPunitive damages are awarded in cases where the conduct of the defendant is deemed to be so outrageous that justice is only served by adding a penalty over and above compensatory damages.. As the word punitive implies, the purpose is to punish the defendant’s actions. Because a punitive award (sometimes called exemplary damages) is at odds with the general purpose of tort law, it is allowable only in aggravated situations. The law in most states permits recovery of punitive damages only when the defendant has deliberately committed a wrong with malicious intent or has otherwise done something outrageous.
Punitive damages are rarely allowed in negligence cases for that reason. But if someone sets out intentionally and maliciously to hurt another person, punitive damages may well be appropriate. Punitive damages are intended not only to punish the wrongdoer, by exacting an additional and sometimes heavy payment (the exact amount is left to the discretion of jury and judge), but also to deter others from similar conduct. The punitive damage award has been subject to heavy criticism in recent years in cases in which it has been awarded against manufacturers. One fear is that huge damage awards on behalf of a multitude of victims could swiftly bankrupt the defendant. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are taxable.
There are three kinds of torts, and in two of them (negligent torts and strict liability torts), damages are usually limited to making the victim whole through an enforceable judgment for money damages. These compensatory damages awarded by a court accomplish only approximate justice for the injuries or property damage caused by a tortfeasor. Tort laws go a step further toward deterrence, beyond compensation to the plaintiff, in occasionally awarding punitive damages against a defendant. These are almost always in cases where an intentional tort has been committed.
The analysis of most intentional torts is straightforward and parallels the substantive crimes already discussed in Chapter 6 "Criminal Law". When physical injury or damage to property is caused, there is rarely debate over liability if the plaintiff deliberately undertook to produce the harm. Certain other intentional torts are worth noting for their relevance to business.
One of the most obvious intentional torts is assault and battery. Both criminal law and tort law serve to restrain individuals from using physical force on others. Assault is (1) the threat of immediate harm or offense of contact or (2) any act that would arouse reasonable apprehension of imminent harm. Battery is unauthorized and harmful or offensive physical contact with another person that causes injury.
Often an assault results in battery, but not always. In Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Hill, for example, the defendant did not touch the plaintiff’s wife, but the case presented an issue of possible assault even without an actual battery; the defendant employee attempted to kiss a customer across the countertop, couldn't quite reach her, but nonetheless created actionable fear (or, as the court put it, “apprehension”) on the part of the plaintiff's wife. It is also possible to have a battery without an assault. For example, if someone hits you on the back of the head with an iron skillet and you didn’t see it coming, there is a battery but no assault. Likewise, if Andrea passes out from drinking too much at the fraternity party and a stranger (Andre) kisses her on the lips while she is passed out, she would not be aware of any threat of offensive contact and would have no apprehension of any harm. Thus there has been no tort of assault, but she could allege the tort of battery. (The question of what damages, if any, would be an interesting argument.)
Under the doctrine of transferred intent, if Draco aims his wand at Harry but Harry ducks just in time and the impact is felt by Hermione instead, English law (and American law) would transfer Draco’s intent from the target to the actual victim of the act. Thus Hermione could sue Draco for battery for any damages she had suffered.
The tort of false imprisonment originally implied a locking up, as in a prison, but today it can occur if a person is restrained in a room or a car or even if his or her movements are restricted while walking down the street. People have a right to be free to go as they please, and anyone who without cause deprives another of personal freedom has committed a tort. Damages are allowed for time lost, discomfort and resulting ill health, mental suffering, humiliation, loss of reputation or business, and expenses such as attorneys’ fees incurred as a result of the restraint (such as a false arrest). But as the case of Lester v. Albers Super Markets, Inc. (Section 7.5 "Cases") shows, the defendant must be shown to have restrained the plaintiff in order for damages to be allowed.
Until recently, the common-law rule was that there could be no recovery for acts, even though intentionally undertaken, that caused purely mental or emotional distress. For a case to go to the jury, the courts required that the mental distress result from some physical injury. In recent years, many courts have overthrown the older rule and now recognize the so-called new tort. In an employment context, however, it is rare to find a case where a plaintiff is able to recover. The most difficult hurdle is proving that the conduct was “extreme” or “outrageous.”
In an early California case, bill collectors came to the debtor’s home repeatedly and threatened the debtor’s pregnant wife. Among other things, they claimed that the wife would have to deliver her child in prison. The wife miscarried and had emotional and physical complications. The court found that the behavior of the collection company’s two agents was sufficiently outrageous to prove the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. In Roche v. Stern (New York), the famous cable television talk show host Howard Stern had tastelessly discussed the remains of Deborah Roche, a topless dancer and cable access television host.Roche v. Stern, 675 N.Y.S.2d 133 (1998). The remains had been brought to Stern’s show by a close friend of Roche, Chaunce Hayden, and a number of crude comments by Stern and Hayden about the remains were videotaped and broadcast on a national cable television station. Roche’s sister and brother sued Howard Stern and Infinity broadcasting and were able to get past the defendant’s motion to dismiss to have a jury consider their claim.
A plaintiff’s burden in these cases is to show that the mental distress is severe. Many states require that this distress must result in physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches, ulcers, or, as in the case of the pregnant wife, a miscarriage. Other states have not required physical symptoms, finding that shame, embarrassment, fear, and anger constitute severe mental distress.
Trespass is intentionally going on land that belongs to someone else or putting something on someone else’s property and refusing to remove it. This part of tort law shows how strongly the law values the rights of property owners. The right to enjoy your property without interference from others is also found in common law of nuisance. There are limits to property owners’ rights, however. In Katko v. Briney, for example, the plaintiff was injured by a spring gun while trespassing on the defendant’s property.Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 (Iowa 1971). The defendant had set up No Trespassing signs after ten years of trespassing and housebreaking events, with the loss of some household items. Windows had been broken, and there was “messing up of the property in general.” The defendants had boarded up the windows and doors in order to stop the intrusions and finally had set up a shotgun trap in the north bedroom of the house. One defendant had cleaned and oiled his 20-gauge shotgun and taken it to the old house where it was secured to an iron bed with the barrel pointed at the bedroom door. “It was rigged with wire from the doorknob to the gun’s trigger so would fire when the door was opened.” The angle of the shotgun was adjusted to hit an intruder in the legs. The spring could not be seen from the outside, and no warning of its presence was posted.
The plaintiff, Katko, had been hunting in the area for several years and considered the property abandoned. He knew it had long been uninhabited. He and a friend had been to the house and found several old bottles and fruit jars that they took and added to their collection of antiques. When they made a second trip to the property, they entered by removing a board from a porch window. When the plaintiff opened the north bedroom door, the shotgun went off and struck him in the right leg above the ankle bone. Much of his leg was blown away. While Katko knew he had no right to break and enter the house with intent to steal bottles and fruit jars, the court held that a property owner could not protect an unoccupied boarded-up farmhouse by using a spring gun capable of inflicting death or serious injury.
In Katko, there is an intentional tort. But what if someone trespassing is injured by the negligence of the landowner? States have differing rules about trespass and negligence. In some states, a trespasser is only protected against the gross negligence of the landowner. In other states, trespassers may be owed the duty of due care on the part of the landowner. The burglar who falls into a drained swimming pool, for example, may have a case against the homeowner unless the courts or legislature of that state have made it clear that trespassers are owed the limited duty to avoid gross negligence. Or a very small child may wander off his own property and fall into a gravel pit on a nearby property and suffer death or serious injury; if the pit should (in the exercise of due care) have been filled in or some barrier erected around it, then there was negligence. But if the state law holds that the duty to trespassers is only to avoid gross negligence, the child’s family would lose, unless the state law makes an exception for very young trespassers. In general, guests, licensees, and invitees are owed a duty of due care; a trespasser may not be owed such a duty, but states have different rules on this.
Tortious interference with a contract can be established by proving four elements:
In a famous case of contract interference, Texaco was sued by Pennzoil for interfering with an agreement that Pennzoil had with Getty Oil. After complicated negotiations between Pennzoil and Getty, a takeover share price was struck, a memorandum of understanding was signed, and a press release announced the agreement in principle between Pennzoil and Getty. Texaco’s lawyers, however, believed that Getty oil was “still in play,” and before the lawyers for Pennzoil and Getty could complete the paperwork for their agreement, Texaco announced it was offering Getty shareholders an additional $12.50 per share over what Pennzoil had offered.
Texaco later increased its offer to $228 per share, and the Getty board of directors soon began dealing with Texaco instead of Pennzoil. Pennzoil decided to sue in Texas state court for tortious interference with a contract. After a long trial, the jury returned an enormous verdict against Texaco: $7.53 billion in actual damages and $3 billion in punitive damages. The verdict was so large that it would have bankrupted Texaco. Appeals from the verdict centered on an obscure rule of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Rule 10(b)-13, and Texaco’s argument was based on that rule and the fact that the contract had not been completed. If there was no contract, Texaco could not have legally interfered with one. After the SEC filed a brief that supported Texaco’s interpretation of the law, Texaco agreed to pay $3 billion to Pennzoil to dismiss its claim of tortious interference with a contract.
Malicious prosecution is the tort of causing someone to be prosecuted for a criminal act, knowing that there was no probable cause to believe that the plaintiff committed the crime. The plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with malice or with some purpose other than bringing the guilty to justice. A mere complaint to the authorities is insufficient to establish the tort, but any official proceeding will support the claim—for example, a warrant for the plaintiff’s arrest. The criminal proceeding must terminate in the plaintiff’s favor in order for his suit to be sustained.
A majority of US courts, though by no means all, permit a suit for wrongful civil proceedings. Civil litigation is usually costly and burdensome, and one who forces another to defend himself against baseless accusations should not be permitted to saddle the one he sues with the costs of defense. However, because, as a matter of public policy, litigation is favored as the means by which legal rights can be vindicated—indeed, the Supreme Court has even ruled that individuals have a constitutional right to litigate—the plaintiff must meet a heavy burden in proving his case. The mere dismissal of the original lawsuit against the plaintiff is not sufficient proof that the suit was unwarranted. The plaintiff in a suit for wrongful civil proceedings must show that the defendant (who was the plaintiff in the original suit) filed the action for an improper purpose and had no reasonable belief that his cause was legally or factually well grounded.
Defamation is injury to a person’s good name or reputation. In general, if the harm is done through the spoken word—one person to another, by telephone, by radio, or on television—it is called slander. If the defamatory statement is published in written form, it is called libel.
The Restatement (Second) of Torts defines a defamatory communication as one that “so tends to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.”Restatement (Second) of Torts, Section 559 (1965).
A statement is not defamatory unless it is false. Truth is an absolute defense to a charge of libel or slander. Moreover, the statement must be “published”—that is, communicated to a third person. You cannot be libeled by one who sends you a letter full of false accusations and scurrilous statements about you unless a third person opens it first (your roommate, perhaps). Any living person is capable of being defamed, but the dead are not. Corporations, partnerships, and other forms of associations can also be defamed, if the statements tend to injure their ability to do business or to garner contributions.
The statement must have reference to a particular person, but he or she need not be identified by name. A statement that “the company president is a crook” is defamatory, as is a statement that “the major network weathermen are imposters.” The company president and the network weathermen could show that the words were aimed at them. But statements about large groups will not support an action for defamation (e.g., “all doctors are butchers” is not defamatory of any particular doctor).
The law of defamation is largely built on strict liability. That a person did not intend to defame is ordinarily no excuse; a typographical error that converts a true statement into a false one in a newspaper, magazine, or corporate brochure can be sufficient to make out a case of libel. Even the exercise of due care is usually no excuse if the statement is in fact communicated. Repeating a libel is itself a libel; a libel cannot be justified by showing that you were quoting someone else. Though a plaintiff may be able to prove that a statement was defamatory, he is not necessarily entitled to an award of damages. That is because the law contains a number of privileges that excuse the defamation.
Publishing false information about another business’s product constitutes the tort of slander of quality, or trade libel. In some states, this is known as the tort of product disparagement. It may be difficult to establish damages, however. A plaintiff must prove that actual damages proximately resulted from the slander of quality and must show the extent of the economic harm as well.
Statements made during the course of judicial proceedings are absolutely privileged, meaning that they cannot serve as the basis for a defamation suit. Accurate accounts of judicial or other proceedings are absolutely privileged; a newspaper, for example, may pass on the slanderous comments of a judge in court. “Judicial” is broadly construed to include most proceedings of administrative bodies of the government. The Constitution exempts members of Congress from suits for libel or slander for any statements made in connection with legislative business. The courts have constructed a similar privilege for many executive branch officials.
Absolute privileges pertain to those in the public sector. A narrower privilege exists for private citizens. In general, a statement that would otherwise be actionable is held to be justified if made in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable purpose. Thus you may warn a friend to beware of dealing with a third person, and if you had reason to believe that what you said was true, you are privileged to issue the warning, even though false. Likewise, an employee may warn an employer about the conduct or character of a fellow or prospective employee, and a parent may complain to a school board about the competence or conduct of a child’s teacher. There is a line to be drawn, however, and a defendant with nothing but an idle interest in the matter (an “officious intermeddler”) must take the risk that his information is wrong.
In 1964, the Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, holding that under the First Amendment a libel judgment brought by a public official against a newspaper cannot stand unless the plaintiff has shown “actual malice,” which in turn was defined as “knowledge that [the statement] was false or with a reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”Times v. Sullivan, 376 US 254 (1964). In subsequent cases, the court extended the constitutional doctrine further, applying it not merely to government officials but to public figuresBased on the First Amendment of the US Constitution, a public figure cannot recover in a defamation case unless the plaintiff’s defamation was done with actual malice., people who voluntarily place themselves in the public eye or who involuntarily find themselves the objects of public scrutiny. Whether a private person is or is not a public figure is a difficult question that has so far eluded rigorous definition and has been answered only from case to case. A CEO of a private corporation ordinarily will be considered a private figure unless he puts himself in the public eye—for example, by starring in the company’s television commercials.
The right of privacy—the right “to be let alone”—did not receive judicial recognition until the twentieth century, and its legal formulation is still evolving. In fact there is no single right of privacy. Courts and commentators have discerned at least four different types of interests: (1) the right to control the appropriation of your name and picture for commercial purposes, (2) the right to be free of intrusion on your “personal space” or seclusion, (3) freedom from public disclosure of embarrassing and intimate facts of your personal life, and (4) the right not to be presented in a “false light.”
The earliest privacy interest recognized by the courts was appropriation of name or likeness: someone else placing your photograph on a billboard or cereal box as a model or using your name as endorsing a product or in the product name. A New York statute makes it a misdemeanor to use the name, portrait, or picture of any person for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade (business) without first obtaining written consent. The law also permits the aggrieved person to sue and to recover damages for unauthorized profits and also to have the court enjoin (judicially block) any further unauthorized use of the plaintiff’s name, likeness, or image. This is particularly useful to celebrities.
Because the publishing and advertising industries are concentrated heavily in New York, the statute plays an important part in advertising decisions made throughout the country. Deciding what “commercial” or “trade” purposes are is not always easy. Thus a newsmagazine may use a baseball player’s picture on its cover without first obtaining written permission, but a chocolate manufacturer could not put the player’s picture on a candy wrapper without consent.
One form of intrusion upon a person’s solitude—trespass—has long been actionable under common law. Physical invasion of home or other property is not a new tort. But in recent years, the notion of intrusion has been broadened considerably. Now, taking photos of someone else with your cell phone in a locker room could constitute invasion of the right to privacy. Reading someone else’s mail or e-mail could also constitute an invasion of the right to privacy. Photographing someone on a city street is not tortious, but subsequent use of the photograph could be. Whether the invasion is in a public or private space, the amount of damages will depend on how the image or information is disclosed to others.
Circulation of false statements that do injury to a person are actionable under the laws of defamation. What about true statements that might be every bit as damaging—for example, disclosure of someone’s income tax return, revealing how much he earned? The general rule is that if the facts are truly private and of no “legitimate” concern to the public, then their disclosure is a violation of the right to privacy. But a person who is in the public eye cannot claim the same protection.
A final type of privacy invasion is that which paints a false picture in a publication. Though false, it might not be libelous, since the publication need contain nothing injurious to reputation. Indeed, the publication might even glorify the plaintiff, making him seem more heroic than he actually is. Subject to the First Amendment requirement that the plaintiff must show intent or extreme recklessness, statements that put a person in a false light, like a fictionalized biography, are actionable.
There are many kinds of intentional torts. Some of them involve harm to the physical person or to his or her property, reputation or feelings, or economic interests. In each case of intentional tort, the plaintiff must show that the defendant intended harm, but the intent to harm does not need to be directed at a particular person and need not be malicious, as long as the resulting harm is a direct consequence of the defendant’s actions.
Physical harm need not be intentionally caused. A pedestrian knocked over by an automobile does not hurt less because the driver intended no wrong but was merely careless. The law imposes a duty of care on all of us in our everyday lives. Accidents caused by negligence are actionable.
Determining negligenceA breach of the duty of due care. is not always easy. If a driver runs a red light, we can say that he is negligent because a driver must always be careful to ascertain whether the light is red and be able to stop if it is. Suppose that the driver was carrying a badly injured person to a nearby hospital and that after slowing down at an intersection, went through a red light, blowing his horn, whereupon a driver to his right, seeing him, drove into the intersection anyway and crashed into him. Must one always stop at a red light? Is proof that the light was red always proof of negligence? Usually, but not always: negligence is an abstract concept that must always be applied to concrete and often widely varying sets of circumstances. Whether someone was or was not negligent is almost always a question of fact for a jury to decide. Rarely is it a legal question that a judge can settle.
The tort of negligence has four elements: (1) a duty of due care that the defendant had, (2) the breach of the duty of due careAny act that fails to meet a standard of the person’s duty of due care toward others. The standard is usually described as the standard of behavior that is expected of a hypothetical “reasonable person” under the circumstances. Certain professionals, however, may be held to a higher standard than the ordinary person., (3) connection between cause and injury, and (4) actual damage or loss. Even if a plaintiff can prove each of these aspects, the defendant may be able to show that the law excuses the conduct that is the basis for the tort claim. We examine each of these factors below.
Not every unintentional act that causes injury is negligent. If you brake to a stop when you see a child dart out in front of your car, and if the noise from your tires gives someone in a nearby house a heart attack, you have not acted negligently toward the person in the house. The purpose of the negligence standard is to protect others against the risk of injury that foreseeably would ensue from unreasonably dangerous conduct.
Given the infinite variety of human circumstances and conduct, no general statement of a reasonable standard of care is possible. Nevertheless, the law has tried to encapsulate it in the form of the famous standard of “the reasonable man.” This fictitious person “of ordinary prudence” is the model that juries are instructed to compare defendants with in assessing whether those defendants have acted negligently. Analysis of this mythical personage has baffled several generations of commentators. How much knowledge must he have of events in the community, of technology, of cause and effect? With what physical attributes, courage, or wisdom is this nonexistent person supposedly endowed? If the defendant is a person with specialized knowledge, like a doctor or an automobile designer, must the jury also treat the “reasonable man” as having this knowledge, even though the average person in the community will not? (Answer: in most cases, yes.)
Despite the many difficulties, the concept of the reasonable man is one on which most negligence cases ultimately turn. If a defendant has acted “unreasonably under the circumstances” and his conduct posed an unreasonable risk of injury, then he is liable for injury caused by his conduct. Perhaps in most instances, it is not difficult to divine what the reasonable man would do. The reasonable man stops for traffic lights and always drives at reasonable speeds, does not throw baseballs through windows, performs surgical operations according to the average standards of the medical profession, ensures that the floors of his grocery store are kept free of fluids that would cause a patron to slip and fall, takes proper precautions to avoid spillage of oil from his supertanker, and so on. The "reasonable man" standard imposes hindsight on the decisions and actions of people in society; the circumstances of life are such that courts may sometimes impose a standard of due care that many people might not find reasonable.
The law does not impose on us a duty to care for every person. If the rule were otherwise, we would all, in this interdependent world, be our brothers’ keepers, constantly unsure whether any action we took might subject us to liability for its effect on someone else. The law copes with this difficulty by limiting the number of people toward whom we owe a duty to be careful.
In general, the law imposes no obligation to act in a situation to which we are strangers. We may pass the drowning child without risking a lawsuit. But if we do act, then the law requires us to act carefully. The law of negligence requires us to behave with due regard for the foreseeable consequences of our actions in order to avoid unreasonable risks of injury.
During the course of the twentieth century, the courts have constantly expanded the notion of “foreseeability,” so that today many more people are held to be within the zone of injury than was once the case. For example, it was once believed that a manufacturer or supplier owed a duty of care only to immediate purchasers, not to others who might use the product or to whom the product might be resold. This limitation was known as the rule of privity. And users who were not immediate purchasers were said not to be in privity with a supplier or manufacturer. In 1916, Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo, then on the New York Court of Appeals, penned an opinion in a celebrated case that exploded the theory of privity, though it would take half a century before the last state—Mississippi in 1966—would fall in line.
Determining a duty of care can be a vexing problem. Physicians, for example, are bound by principles of medical ethics to respect the confidences of their patients. Suppose a patient tells a psychiatrist that he intends to kill his girlfriend. Does the physician then have a higher legal duty to warn prospective victim? The California Supreme Court has said yes.Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 551 P.2d 334 (Calif. 1976).
Establishing a breach of the duty of due care where the defendant has violated a statute or municipal ordinance is eased considerably with the doctrine of negligence per seAn act of the defendant that violates a statute regulation or ordinance can be used to establish a breach of the duty of due care., a doctrine common to all US state courts. If a legislative body sets a minimum standard of care for particular kinds of acts to protect a certain set of people from harm and a violation of that standard causes harm to someone in that set, the defendant is negligent per se. If Harvey is driving sixty-five miles per hour in a fifty-five-mile-per-hour zone when he crashes into Haley’s car and the police accident report establishes that or he otherwise admits to going ten miles per hour over the speed limit, Haley does not have to prove that Harvey has breached a duty of due care. She will only have to prove that the speeding was an actual and proximate cause of the collision and will also have to prove the extent of the resulting damages to her.
“For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost,” as the old saying has it. Virtually any cause of an injury can be traced to some preceding cause. The problem for the law is to know when to draw the line between causes that are immediate and causes too remote for liability reasonably to be assigned to them. In tort theory, there are two kinds of causes that a plaintiff must prove: actual cause and proximate cause. Actual cause (causation in fact)The actual cause of negligence is sometimes called the “but for” event that is a breach of duty on the part of the defendant. can be found if the connection between the defendant’s act and the plaintiff’s injuries passes the “but for” test: if an injury would not have occurred “but for” the defendant’s conduct, then the defendant is the cause of the injury. Still, this is not enough causation to create liability. The injuries to the plaintiff must also be foreseeable, or not “too remote,” for the defendant’s act to create liability. This is proximate causeSometimes known as legal cause, proximate cause must be shown as well as actual cause, so that an act of the defendant will not result in liability if the consequences of the negligent act are too remote or unforeseeable.: a cause that is not too remote or unforseeable.
Suppose that the person who was injured was not one whom a reasonable person could have expected to be harmed. Such a situation was presented in one of the most famous US tort cases, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad (Section 7.5 "Cases"), which was decided by Judge Benjamin Cardozo. Although Judge Cardozo persuaded four of his seven brethren to side with his position, the closeness of the case demonstrates the difficulty that unforeseeable consequences and unforeseeable plaintiffs present.
For a plaintiff to win a tort case, she must allege and prove that she was injured. The fear that she might be injured in the future is not a sufficient basis for a suit. This rule has proved troublesome in medical malpractice and industrial disease cases. A doctor’s negligent act or a company’s negligent exposure of a worker to some form of contamination might not become manifest in the body for years. In the meantime, the tort statute of limitations might have run out, barring the victim from suing at all. An increasing number of courts have eased the plaintiff’s predicament by ruling that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the victim discovers that she has been injured or contracted a disease.
The law allows an exception to the general rule that damages must be shown when the plaintiff stands in danger of immediate injury from a hazardous activity. If you discover your neighbor experimenting with explosives in his basement, you could bring suit to enjoin him from further experimentation, even though he has not yet blown up his house—and yours.
The plaintiff in a tort suit, as in any other, has the burden of proving his allegations.
He must show that the defendant took the actions complained of as negligent, demonstrate the circumstances that make the actions negligent, and prove the occurrence and extent of injury. Factual issues are for the jury to resolve. Since it is frequently difficult to make out the requisite proof, the law allows certain presumptions and rules of evidence that ease the plaintiff’s task, on the ground that without them substantial injustice would be done. One important rule goes by the Latin phrase res ipsa loquiturLiterally, “the thing speaks for itself.” In tort cases, res ipsa loquitur creates a presumption that the defendant was negligent because he or she was in exclusive control of the situation and that the plaintiff would not have suffered injury but for someone’s negligence. Res ipsa loquitur shifts the burden to the defendant to prove that he or she was not negligent., meaning “the thing speaks for itself.” The best evidence is always the most direct evidence: an eyewitness account of the acts in question. But eyewitnesses are often unavailable, and in any event they frequently cannot testify directly to the reasonableness of someone’s conduct, which inevitably can only be inferred from the circumstances.
In many cases, therefore, circumstantial evidenceEvidence that is not “direct” but that provides judges and juries with facts that tend to show legal liability. (evidence that is indirect) will be the only evidence or will constitute the bulk of the evidence. Circumstantial evidence can often be quite telling: though no one saw anyone leave the building, muddy footprints tracing a path along the sidewalk are fairly conclusive. Res ipsa loquitur is a rule of circumstantial evidence that permits the jury to draw an inference of negligence. A common statement of the rule is the following: “There must be reasonable evidence of negligence but where the thing is shown to be under the management of the defendant or his servants, and the accident is such as in the ordinary course of things does not happen if those who have the management use proper care, it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of explanation by the defendants, that the accident arose from want of care.”Scott v. London & St. Katherine Docks Co., 3 H. & C. 596, 159 Eng.Rep. 665 (Q.B. 1865).
If a barrel of flour rolls out of a factory window and hits someone, or a soda bottle explodes, or an airplane crashes, courts in every state permit juries to conclude, in the absence of contrary explanations by the defendants, that there was negligence. The plaintiff is not put to the impossible task of explaining precisely how the accident occurred. A defendant can always offer evidence that he acted reasonably—for example, that the flour barrel was securely fastened and that a bolt of lightning, for which he was not responsible, broke its bands, causing it to roll out the window. But testimony by the factory employees that they secured the barrel, in the absence of any further explanation, will not usually serve to rebut the inference. That the defendant was negligent does not conclude the inquiry or automatically entitle the plaintiff to a judgment. Tort law provides the defendant with several excuses, some of which are discussed briefly in the next section.
There are more excuses (defenses) than are listed here, but contributory negligence or comparative negligence, assumption of risk, and act of God are among the principal defenses that will completely or partially excuse the negligence of the defendant.
Under an old common-law rule, it was a complete defense to show that the plaintiff in a negligence suit was himself negligent. Even if the plaintiff was only mildly negligent, most of the fault being chargeable to the defendant, the court would dismiss the suit if the plaintiff’s conduct contributed to his injury. In a few states today, this rule of contributory negligenceActions of a plaintiff that contribute to his or her own injuries. In a few states, comparative negligence is a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery. is still in effect. Although referred to as negligence, the rule encompasses a narrower form than that with which the defendant is charged, because the plaintiff’s only error in such cases is in being less careful of himself than he might have been, whereas the defendant is charged with conduct careless toward others. This rule was so manifestly unjust in many cases that most states, either by statute or judicial decision, have changed to some version of comparative negligenceIn most states, the negligence of the plaintiff is weighed against the negligence of the defendant, and where the defendant’s negligence outweighs the plaintiff’s, the plaintiff can recover against the defendant even though the plaintiff has caused some of his or her own injuries.. Under the rule of comparative negligence, damages are apportioned according to the defendant’s degree of culpability. For example, if the plaintiff has sustained a $100,000 injury and is 20 percent responsible, the defendant will be liable for $80,000 in damages.
Risk of injury pervades the modern world, and plaintiffs should not win a lawsuit simply because they took a risk and lost. The law provides, therefore, that when a person knowingly takes a risk, he or she must suffer the consequences.
The assumption of risk doctrine comes up in three ways. The plaintiff may have formally agreed with the defendant before entering a risky situation that he will relieve the defendant of liability should injury occur. (“You can borrow my car if you agree not to sue me if the brakes fail, because they’re worn and I haven’t had a chance to replace them.”) Or the plaintiff may have entered into a relationship with the defendant knowing that the defendant is not in a position to protect him from known risks (the fan who is hit by a line drive in a ballpark). Or the plaintiff may act in the face of a risky situation known in advance to have been created by the defendant’s negligence (failure to leave, while there was an opportunity to do so, such as getting into an automobile when the driver is known to be drunk).
The difficulty in many cases is to determine the dividing line between subjectivity and objectivity. If the plaintiff had no actual knowledge of the risk, he cannot be held to have assumed it. On the other hand, it is easy to claim that you did not appreciate the danger, and the courts will apply an objective standard of community knowledge (a “but you should have known” test) in many situations. When the plaintiff has no real alternative, however, assumption of risk fails as a defense (e.g., a landlord who negligently fails to light the exit to the street cannot claim that his tenants assumed the risk of using it).
At the turn of the century, courts applied assumption of risk in industrial cases to bar relief to workers injured on the job. They were said to assume the risk of dangerous conditions or equipment. This rule has been abolished by workers’ compensation statutes in most states.
Technically, the rule that no one is responsible for an “act of God,” or force majeure as it is sometimes called, is not an excuse but a defense premised on a lack of causation. If a force of nature caused the harm, then the defendant was not negligent in the first place. A marina, obligated to look after boats moored at its dock, is not liable if a sudden and fierce storm against which no precaution was possible destroys someone’s vessel. However, if it is foreseeable that harm will flow from a negligent condition triggered by a natural event, then there is liability. For example, a work crew failed to remove residue explosive gas from an oil barge. Lightning hit the barge, exploded the gas, and injured several workmen. The plaintiff recovered damages against the company because the negligence consisted in the failure to guard against any one of a number of chance occurrences that could ignite the gas.Johnson v. Kosmos Portland Cement Co., 64 F.2d 193 (6th Cir. 1933).
Liability for negligent acts does not always end with the one who was negligent. Under certain circumstances, the liability is imputed to others. For example, an employer is responsible for the negligence of his employees if they were acting in the scope of employment. This rule of vicarious liability is often called respondeat superior, meaning that the higher authority must respond to claims brought against one of its agents. Respondeat superior is not limited to the employment relationship but extends to a number of other agency relationships as well.
Legislatures in many states have enacted laws that make people vicariously liable for acts of certain people with whom they have a relationship, though not necessarily one of agency. It is common, for example, for the owner of an automobile to be liable for the negligence of one to whom the owner lends the car. So-called dram shop statutes place liability on bar and tavern owners and others who serve too much alcohol to one who, in an intoxicated state, later causes injury to others. In these situations, although the injurious act of the drinker stemmed from negligence, the one whom the law holds vicariously liable (the bartender) is not himself necessarily negligent—the law is holding him strictly liable, and to this concept we now turn.
The most common tort claim is based on the negligence of the defendant. In each negligence claim, the plaintiff must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) the defendant had a duty of due care, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) that the breach of duty both actually and approximately has caused harm to the plaintiff, and (4) that the harm is measurable in money damages.
It is also possible for the negligence of one person to be imputed to another, as in the case of respondeat superior, or in the case of someone who loans his automobile to another driver who is negligent and causes injury. There are many excuses (defenses) to claims of negligence, including assumption of risk and comparative negligence. In those few jurisdictions where contributory negligence has not been modified to comparative negligence, plaintiffs whose negligence contributes to their own injuries will be barred from any recovery.
To this point, we have considered principles of liability that in some sense depend upon the “fault” of the tortfeasor. This fault is not synonymous with moral blame.
Aside from acts intended to harm, the fault lies in a failure to live up to a standard of reasonableness or due care. But this is not the only basis for tort liability. Innocent mistakes can be a sufficient basis. As we have already seen, someone who unknowingly trespasses on another’s property is liable for the damage that he does, even if he has a reasonable belief that the land is his. And it has long been held that someone who engages in ultrahazardous (or sometimes, abnormally dangerous) activities is liable for damage that he causes, even though he has taken every possible precaution to avoid harm to someone else.
Likewise, the owner of animals that escape from their pastures or homes and damage neighboring property may be liable, even if the reason for their escape was beyond the power of the owner to stop (e.g., a fire started by lightning that burns open a barn door). In such cases, the courts invoke the principle of strict liability, or, as it is sometimes called, liability without fault. The reason for the rule is explained in Klein v. Pyrodyne Corporation (Section 7.5 "Cases").
Products liability is extremely important. Strict liability may also apply as a legal standard for products, even those that are not ultrahazardous. In some national legal systems, strict liability is not available as a cause of action to plaintiffs seeking to recover a judgment of products liability against a manufacturer, wholesaler, distributor, or retailer. (Some states limit liability to the manufacturer.) But it is available in the United States and initially was created by a California Supreme Court decision in the 1962 case of Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc.
In Greenman, the plaintiff had used a home power saw and bench, the Shopsmith, designed and manufactured by the defendant. He was experienced in using power tools and was injured while using the approved lathe attachment to the Shopsmith to fashion a wooden chalice. The case was decided on the premise that Greenman had done nothing wrong in using the machine but that the machine had a defect that was “latent” (not easily discoverable by the consumer). Rather than decide the case based on warranties, or requiring that Greenman prove how the defendant had been negligent, Justice Traynor found for the plaintiff based on the overall social utility of strict liability in cases of defective products. According to his decision, the purpose of such liability is to ensure that the “cost of injuries resulting from defective products is borne by the manufacturers…rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves.”
Today, the majority of US states recognize strict liability for defective products, although some states limit strict liability actions to damages for personal injuries rather than property damage. Injured plaintiffs have to prove the product caused the harm but do not have to prove exactly how the manufacturer was careless. Purchasers of the product, as well as injured guests, bystanders, and others with no direct relationship with the product, may sue for damages caused by the product.
The Restatement of the Law of Torts, Section 402(a), was originally issued in 1964. It is a widely accepted statement of the liabilities of sellers of goods for defective products. The Restatement specifies six requirements, all of which must be met for a plaintiff to recover using strict liability for a product that the plaintiff claims is defective:
Section 402(a) also explicitly makes clear that a defendant can be held liable even though the defendant has exercised “all possible care.” Thus in a strict liability case, the plaintiff does not need to show “fault” (or negligence).
For defendants, who can include manufacturers, distributors, processors, assemblers, packagers, bottlers, retailers, and wholesalers, there are a number of defenses that are available, including assumption of risk, product misuse and comparative negligence, commonly known dangers, and the knowledgeable-user defense. We have already seen assumption of risk and comparative negligence in terms of negligence actions; the application of these is similar in products-liability actions.
Under product misuse, a plaintiff who uses a product in an unexpected and unusual way will not recover for injuries caused by such misuse. For example, suppose that someone uses a rotary lawn mower to trim a hedge and that after twenty minutes of such use loses control because of its weight and suffers serious cuts to his abdomen after dropping it. Here, there would be a defense of product misuse, as well as contributory negligence. Consider the urban (or Internet) legend of Mervin Gratz, who supposedly put his Winnebago on autopilot to go back and make coffee in the kitchen, then recovered millions after his Winnebago turned over and he suffered serious injuries. There are multiple defenses to this alleged action; these would include the defenses of contributory negligence, comparative negligence, and product misuse. (There was never any such case, and certainly no such recovery; it is not known who started this legend, or why.)
Another defense against strict liability as a cause of action is the knowledgeable user defense. If the parents of obese teenagers bring a lawsuit against McDonald’s, claiming that its fast-food products are defective and that McDonald’s should have warned customers of the adverse health effects of eating its products, a defense based on the knowledgeable user is available. In one case, the court found that the high levels of cholesterol, fat, salt, and sugar in McDonald’s food is well known to users. The court stated, “If consumers know (or reasonably should know) the potential ill health effects of eating at McDonald’s, they cannot blame McDonald’s if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald’s products.”Pellman v. McDonald’s Corp., 237 F.2d 512 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).
Common-law courts have long held that certain activities are inherently dangerous and that those who cause damage to others by engaging in those activities will be held strictly liable. More recently, courts in the United States have applied strict liability to defective products. Strict liability, however, is not absolute liability, as there are many defenses available to defendants in lawsuits based on strict liability, such as comparative negligence and product abuse.
Lester v. Albers Super Markets, Inc.
94 Ohio App. 313, 114 N.E.2d 529 (Ohio 1952)
Facts: The plaintiff, carrying a bag of rolls purchased at another store, entered the defendant’s grocery store to buy some canned fruit. Seeing her bus outside, she stepped out of line and put the can on the counter. The store manager intercepted her and repeatedly demanded that she submit the bag to be searched. Finally she acquiesced; he looked inside and said she could go. She testified that several people witnessed the scene, which lasted about fifteen minutes, and that she was humiliated. The jury awarded her $800. She also testified that no one laid a hand on her or made a move to restrain her from leaving by any one of numerous exits.
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As we view the record, it raises the fundamental question of what is imprisonment. Before any need for a determination of illegality arises there must be proof of imprisonment. In 35 Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.), False Imprisonment, § II, pages 512–13, it is said: “Submission to the mere verbal direction of another, unaccompanied by force or by threats of any character, cannot constitute a false imprisonment, and there is no false imprisonment where an employer interviewing an employee declines to terminate the interview if no force or threat of force is used and false imprisonment may not be predicated on a person’s unfounded belief that he was restrained.”
Many cases are cited in support of the text.
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In Fenn v. Kroger Grocery & Baking Co., Mo. Sup., 209 S.W. 885, 887, the court said:
A case was not made out for false arrest. The plaintiff said she was intercepted as she started to leave the store; that Mr. Krause stood where she could not pass him in going out. She does not say that he made any attempt to intercept her. She says he escorted her back to the desk, that he asked her to let him see the change.
…She does not say that she went unwillingly…Evidence is wholly lacking to show that she was detained by force or threats. It was probably a disagreeable experience, a humiliating one to her, but she came out victorious and was allowed to go when she desired with the assurance of Mr. Krause that it was all right. The demurrer to the evidence on both counts was properly sustained.
The result of the cases is epitomized in 22 Am.Jur. 368, as follows:
A customer or patron who apparently has not paid for what he has received may be detained for a reasonable time to investigate the circumstances, but upon payment of the demand, he has the unqualified right to leave the premises without restraint, so far as the proprietor is concerned, and it is false imprisonment for a private individual to detain one for an unreasonable time, or under unreasonable circumstances, for the purpose of investigating a dispute over the payment of a bill alleged to be owed by the person detained for cash services.
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For these reasons, the judgment is reversed and final judgment entered for the defendant-appellant.
Whitlock v. University of Denver
744 P.2d 54 (Supreme Court of Colorado1987)
On June 19, 1978, at approximately 10:00 p.m., plaintiff Oscar Whitlock suffered a paralyzing injury while attempting to complete a one-and-three-quarters front flip on a trampoline. The injury rendered him a quadriplegic. The trampoline was owned by the Beta Theta Pi fraternity (the Beta house) and was situated on the front yard of the fraternity premises, located on the University campus. At the time of his injury, Whitlock was twenty years old, attended the University of Denver, and was a member of the Beta house, where he held the office of acting house manager. The property on which the Beta house was located was leased to the local chapter house association of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity by the defendant University of Denver.
Whitlock had extensive experience jumping on trampolines. He began using trampolines in junior high school and continued to do so during his brief tenure as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he learned to execute the one-and-three-quarters front flip. Whitlock testified that he utilized the trampoline at West Point every other day for a period of two months. He began jumping on the trampoline owned by the Beta house in September of 1977. Whitlock recounted that in the fall and spring prior to the date of his injury, he jumped on the trampoline almost daily. He testified further that prior to the date of his injury, he had successfully executed the one-and-three-quarters front flip between seventy-five and one hundred times.
During the evening of June 18 and early morning of June 19, 1978, Whitlock attended a party at the Beta house, where he drank beer, vodka and scotch until 2:00 a.m. Whitlock then retired and did not awaken until 2:00 p.m. on June 19. He testified that he jumped on the trampoline between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., and again at 7:00 p.m. At 10:00 p.m., the time of the injury, there again was a party in progress at the Beta house, and Whitlock was using the trampoline with only the illumination from the windows of the fraternity house, the outside light above the front door of the house, and two street lights in the area. As Whitlock attempted to perform the one-and-three-quarters front flip, he landed on the back of his head, causing his neck to break.
Whitlock brought suit against the manufacturer and seller of the trampoline, the University, the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and its local chapter, and certain individuals in their capacities as representatives of the Beta Theta Pi organizations. Whitlock reached settlements with all of the named defendants except the University, so only the negligence action against the University proceeded to trial. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Whitlock, assessing his total damages at $ 7,300,000. The jury attributed twenty-eight percent of causal negligence to the conduct of Whitlock and seventy-two percent of causal negligence to the conduct of the University. The trial court accordingly reduced the amount of the award against the University to $ 5,256,000.
The University moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or, in the alternative, a new trial. The trial court granted the motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, holding that as a matter of law, no reasonable jury could have found that the University was more negligent than Whitlock, and that the jury’s monetary award was the result of sympathy, passion or prejudice.
A panel of the court of appeals reversed…by a divided vote. Whitlock v. University of Denver, 712 P.2d 1072 (Colo. App. 1985). The court of appeals held that the University owed Whitlock a duty of due care to remove the trampoline from the fraternity premises or to supervise its use.…The case was remanded to the trial court with orders to reinstate the verdict and damages as determined by the jury. The University then petitioned for certiorari review, and we granted that petition.
A negligence claim must fail if based on circumstances for which the law imposes no duty of care upon the defendant for the benefit of the plaintiff. [Citations] Therefore, if Whitlock’s judgment against the University is to be upheld, it must first be determined that the University owed a duty of care to take reasonable measures to protect him against the injury that he sustained.
Whether a particular defendant owes a legal duty to a particular plaintiff is a question of law. [Citations] “The court determines, as a matter of law, the existence and scope of the duty—that is, whether the plaintiff’s interest that has been infringed by the conduct of the defendant is entitled to legal protection.” [Citations] In Smith v. City & County of Denver, 726 P.2d 1125 (Colo. 1986), we set forth several factors to be considered in determining the existence of duty in a particular case:
Whether the law should impose a duty requires consideration of many factors including, for example, the risk involved, the foreseeability and likelihood of injury as weighed against the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the magnitude of the burden of guarding against injury or harm, and the consequences of placing the burden upon the actor.
…A court’s conclusion that a duty does or does not exist is “an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the plaintiff is [or is not] entitled to protection.”
We believe that the fact that the University is charged with negligent failure to act rather than negligent affirmative action is a critical factor that strongly militates against imposition of a duty on the University under the facts of this case. In determining whether a defendant owes a duty to a particular plaintiff, the law has long recognized a distinction between action and a failure to act—“that is to say, between active misconduct working positive injury to others [misfeasance] and passive inaction or a failure to take steps to protect them from harm [nonfeasance].” W. Keeton, § 56, at 373. Liability for nonfeasance was slow to receive recognition in the law. “The reason for the distinction may be said to lie in the fact that by ‘misfeasance’ the defendant has created a new risk of harm to the plaintiff, while by ‘nonfeasance’ he has at least made his situation no worse, and has merely failed to benefit him by interfering in his affairs.” Id. The Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314 (1965) summarizes the law on this point as follows:
The fact that an actor realizes or should realize that action on his part is necessary for another’s aid or protection does not of itself impose upon him a duty to take such action.
Imposition of a duty in all such cases would simply not meet the test of fairness under contemporary standards.
In nonfeasance cases the existence of a duty has been recognized only during the last century in situations involving a limited group of special relationships between parties. Such special relationships are predicated on “some definite relation between the parties, of such a character that social policy justifies the imposition of a duty to act.” W. Keeton, § 56, at 374. Special relationships that have been recognized by various courts for the purpose of imposition of a duty of care include common carrier/passenger, innkeeper/guest, possessor of land/invited entrant, employer/employee, parent/child, and hospital/patient. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314 A (1965); 3 Harper and James, § 18.6, at 722–23. The authors of the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314 A, comment b (1965), state that “the law appears…to be working slowly toward a recognition of the duty to aid or protect in any relation of dependence or of mutual dependence.”
The present case involves the alleged negligent failure to act, rather than negligent action. The plaintiff does not complain of any affirmative action taken by the University, but asserts instead that the University owed to Whitlock the duty to assure that the fraternity’s trampoline was used only under supervised conditions comparable to those in a gymnasium class, or in the alternative to cause the trampoline to be removed from the front lawn of the Beta house.…If such a duty is to be recognized, it must be grounded on a special relationship between the University and Whitlock. According to the evidence, there are only two possible sources of a special relationship out of which such a duty could arise in this case: the status of Whitlock as a student at the University, and the lease between the University and the fraternity of which Whitlock was a member. We first consider the adequacy of the student-university relationship as a possible basis for imposing a duty on the University to control or prohibit the use of the trampoline, and then examine the provisions of the lease for that same purpose.
The student-university relationship has been scrutinized in several jurisdictions, and it is generally agreed that a university is not an insurer of its students’ safety. [Citations] The relationship between a university and its students has experienced important change over the years. At one time, college administrators and faculties stood in loco parentis to their students, which created a special relationship “that imposed a duty on the college to exercise control over student conduct and, reciprocally, gave the students certain rights of protection by the college.” Bradshaw, 612 F.2d at 139. However, in modern times there has evolved a gradual reapportionment of responsibilities from the universities to the students, and a corresponding departure from the in loco parentis relationship. Id. at 139–40. Today, colleges and universities are regarded as educational institutions rather than custodial ones. Beach, 726 P.2d at 419 (contrasting colleges and universities with elementary and high schools).
…By imposing a duty on the University in this case, the University would be encouraged to exercise more control over private student recreational choices, thereby effectively taking away much of the responsibility recently recognized in students for making their own decisions with respect to private entertainment and personal safety. Such an allocation of responsibility would “produce a repressive and inhospitable environment, largely inconsistent with the objectives of a modern college education.” Beach, 726 P.2d at 419.
The evidence demonstrates that only in limited instances has the University attempted to impose regulations or restraints on the private recreational pursuits of its students, and the students have not looked to the University to assure the safety of their recreational choices. Nothing in the University’s student handbook, which contains certain regulations concerning student conduct, reflects an effort by the University to control the risk-taking decisions of its students in their private recreation.…Indeed, fraternity and sorority self-governance with minimal supervision appears to have been fostered by the University.
Aside from advising the Beta house on one occasion to put the trampoline up when not in use, there is no evidence that the University officials attempted to assert control over trampoline use by the fraternity members. We conclude from this record that the University’s very limited actions concerning safety of student recreation did not give Whitlock or the other members of campus fraternities or sororities any reason to depend upon the University for evaluation of the safety of trampoline use.…Therefore, we conclude that the student-university relationship is not a special relationship of the type giving rise to a duty of the University to take reasonable measures to protect the members of fraternities and sororities from risks of engaging in extra-curricular trampoline jumping.
The plaintiff asserts, however, that we should recognize a duty of the University to take affirmative action to protect fraternity members because of the foreseeability of the injury, the extent of the risks involved in trampoline use, the seriousness of potential injuries, and the University’s superior knowledge concerning these matters. The argument in essence is that a duty should spring from the University’s natural interest in the welfare and safety of its students, its superior knowledge of the nature and degree of risk involved in trampoline use, and its knowledge of the use of trampolines on the University campus. The evidence amply supports a conclusion that trampoline use involves risks of serious injuries and that the potential for an injury such as that experienced by Whitlock was foreseeable. It shows further that prior injuries resulting from trampoline accidents had been reported to campus security and to the student clinic, and that University administrators were aware of the number and severity of trampoline injuries nationwide.
The record, however, also establishes through Whitlock’s own testimony that he was aware of the risk of an accident and injury of the very nature that he experienced.…
We conclude that the relationship between the University and Whitlock was not one of dependence with respect to the activities at issue here, and provides no basis for the recognition of a duty of the University to take measures for protection of Whitlock against the injury that he suffered.
We next examine the lease between the University and the fraternity to determine whether a special relationship between the University and Whitlock can be predicated on that document. The lease was executed in 1929, extends for a ninety-nine year term, and gives the fraternity the option to extend the term for another ninety-nine years. The premises are to be occupied and used by the fraternity “as a fraternity house, clubhouse, dormitory and boarding house, and generally for religious, educational, social and fraternal purposes.” Such occupation is to be “under control of the tenant.” (emphasis added) The annual rental at all times relevant to this case appears from the record to be one dollar. The University has the obligation to maintain the grounds and make necessary repairs to the building, and the fraternity is to bear the cost of such maintenance and repair.
We conclude that the lease, and the University’s actions pursuant to its rights under the lease, provide no basis of dependence by the fraternity members upon which a special relationship can be found to exist between the University and the fraternity members that would give rise to a duty upon the University to take affirmative action to assure that recreational equipment such as a trampoline is not used under unsafe conditions.
Considering all of the factors presented, we are persuaded that under the facts of this case the University of Denver had no duty to Whitlock to eliminate the private use of trampolines on its campus or to supervise that use. There exists no special relationship between the parties that justifies placing a duty upon the University to protect Whitlock from the well-known dangers of using a trampoline. Here, a conclusion that a special relationship existed between Whitlock and the University sufficient to warrant the imposition of liability for nonfeasance would directly contravene the competing social policy of fostering an educational environment of student autonomy and independence.
We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and return this case to that court with directions to remand it to the trial court for dismissal of Whitlock’s complaint against the University.
Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R.
248 N.Y. 339,162 N.E. 99 (N.Y. 1928)
CARDOZO, Chief Judge
Plaintiff was standing on a platform of defendant’s railroad after buying a ticket to go to Rockaway Beach. A train stopped at the station, bound for another place. Two men ran forward to catch it. One of the men reached the platform of the car without mishap, though the train was already moving. The other man, carrying a package, jumped aboard the car, but seemed unsteady as if about to fall. A guard on the car, who had held the door open, reached forward to help him in, and another guard on the platform pushed him from behind. In this act, the package was dislodged, and fell upon the rails. It was a package of small size, about fifteen inches long, and was covered by a newspaper. In fact it contained fireworks, but there was nothing in its appearance to give notice of its contents. The fireworks when they fell exploded. The shock of· the explosion threw down some scales at the other end of the platform many feet away. The scales struck the plaintiff, causing injuries for which she sues.
The conduct of the defendant’s guard, if a wrong in its relation to the holder of the package, was not a wrong in its relation to the plaintiff, standing far away. Relatively to her it was not negligence at all. Nothing in the situation gave notice that the falling package had in it the potency of peril to persons thus removed. Negligence is not actionable unless it involves the invasion of a legally protected interest, the violation of a right. “Proof of negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do.…If no hazard was apparent to the eye of ordinary vigilance, an act innocent and harmless, at least to outward seeming, with reference to her, did not take to itself the quality of a tort because it happened to be a wrong, though apparently not one involving the risk of bodily insecurity, with reference to someone else.…The plaintiff sues in her own right for a wrong personal to her, and not as the vicarious beneficiary of a breach of duty to another.
A different conclusion will involve us, and swiftly too, in a maze of contradictions. A guard stumbles over a package which has been left upon a platform.
It seems to be a bundle of newspapers. It turns out to be a can of dynamite. To the eye of ordinary vigilance, the bundle is abandoned waste, which may be kicked or trod on with impunity. Is a passenger at the other end of the platform protected by the law against the unsuspected hazard concealed beneath the waste? If not, is the result to be any different, so far as the distant passenger is concerned, when the guard stumbles over a valise which a truckman or a porter has left upon the walk?…The orbit of the danger as disclosed to the eye of reasonable vigilance would be the orbit of the duty. One who jostles one’s neighbor in a crowd does not invade the rights of others standing at the outer fringe when the unintended contact casts a bomb upon the ground. The wrongdoer as to them is the man who carries the bomb, not the one who explodes it without suspicion of the danger. Life will have to be made over, and human nature transformed, before prevision so extravagant can be accepted as the norm of conduct, the customary standard to which behavior must conform.
The argument for the plaintiff is built upon the shifting meanings of such words as “wrong” and “wrongful” and shares their instability. For what the plaintiff must show is a “wrong” to herself; i.e., a violation of her own right, and not merely a “wrong” to someone else, nor conduct “wrongful” because unsocial, but not a “wrong” to anyone. We are told that one who drives at reckless speed through a crowded city street is guilty of a negligent act and therefore of a wrongful one, irrespective of the consequences.
Negligent the act is, and wrongful in the sense that it is unsocial, but wrongful and unsocial in relation to other travelers, only because the eye of vigilance perceives the risk of damage. If the same act were to be committed on a speedway or a race course, it would lose its wrongful quality. The risk reasonably to be perceived defines the duty to be obeyed, and risk imports relation; it is risk to another or to others within the range of apprehension. This does not mean, of course, that one who launches a destructive force is always relieved of liability, if the force, though known to be destructive, pursues an unexpected path.…Some acts, such as shooting are so imminently dangerous to anyone who may come within reach of the missile however unexpectedly, as to impose a duty of prevision not far from that of an insurer. Even today, and much oftener in earlier stages of the law, one acts sometimes at one’s peril.…These cases aside, wrong-is defined in terms of the natural or probable, at least when unintentional.…Negligence, like risk, is thus a term of relation.
Negligence in the abstract, apart from things related, is surely not a tort, if indeed it is understandable at all.…One who seeks redress at law does not make out a cause of action by showing without more that there has been damage to his person. If the harm was not willful, he must show that the act as to him had possibilities of danger so many and apparent as to entitle him to be protected against the doing of it though the harm was unintended.
* * *
The judgment of the Appellate Division and that of the Trial Term should be reversed, and the complaint dismissed, with costs in all courts.
Klein v. Pyrodyne Corporation
810 P.2d 917 (Supreme Court of Washington 1991)
Pyrodyne Corporation (Pyrodyne) is a licensed fireworks display company that contracted to display fireworks at the Western Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup, Washington, on July 4,1987. During the fireworks display, one of the mortar launchers discharged a rocket on a horizontal trajectory parallel to the earth. The rocket exploded near a crowd of onlookers, including Danny Klein. Klein’s clothing was set on fire, and he suffered facial burns and serious injury to his eyes. Klein sued Pyrodyne for strict liability to recover for his injuries. Pyrodyne asserted that the Chinese manufacturer of the fireworks was negligent in producing the rocket and therefore Pyrodyne should not be held liable. The trial court applied the doctrine of strict liability and held in favor of Klein. Pyrodyne appealed.
Section 519 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts provides that any party carrying on an “abnormally dangerous activity” is strictly liable for ensuing damages. The public display of fireworks fits this definition. The court stated: “Any time a person ignites rockets with the intention of sending them aloft to explode in the presence of large crowds of people, a high risk of serious personal injury or property damage is created. That risk arises because of the possibility that a rocket will malfunction or be misdirected.” Pyrodyne argued that its liability was cut off by the Chinese manufacturer’s negligence. The court rejected this argument, stating, “Even if negligence may properly be regarded as an intervening cause, it cannot function to relieve Pyrodyne from strict liability.”
The Washington Supreme Court held that the public display of fireworks is an abnormally dangerous activity that warrants the imposition of strict liability.
The principles of tort law pervade modern society because they spell out the duties of care that we owe each other in our private lives. Tort law has had a significant impact on business because modern technology poses significant dangers and the modern market is so efficient at distributing goods to a wide class of consumers.
Unlike criminal law, tort law does not require the tortfeasor to have a specific intent to commit the act for which he or she will be held liable to pay damages. Negligence—that is, carelessness—is a major factor in tort liability. In some instances, especially in cases involving injuries caused by products, a no-fault standard called strict liability is applied.
What constitutes a legal injury depends very much on the circumstances. A person can assume a risk or consent to the particular action, thus relieving the person doing the injury from tort liability. To be liable, the tortfeasor must be the proximate cause of the injury, not a remote cause. On the other hand, certain people are held to answer for the torts of another—for example, an employer is usually liable for the torts of his employees, and a bartender might be liable for injuries caused by someone to whom he sold too many drinks. Two types of statutes—workers’ compensation and no-fault automobile insurance—have eliminated tort liability for certain kinds of accidents and replaced it with an immediate insurance payment plan.
Among the torts of particular importance to the business community are wrongful death and personal injury caused by products or acts of employees, misrepresentation, defamation, and interference with contractual relations.
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