Basics of Negligence Law: In The Beginning…

On Behalf of | Feb 24, 2016 | Personal Injury

When the earth was void and without form, at least from a negligence law perspective, two English cases helped shape the modern American notion of duty in a car crash case.

Vaughan v. Menlove

When the court considered this case in 1837, the idea that a duty of care applied to individuals in their everyday lives was completely unknown. The only analogous situation was in contract law: when people took money to feed horses, build houses, or mend clothes, they had a legal duty to perform that service.

However, this case had nothing to do with contracts. Instead, the defendant kept a large haystack perilously close to his neighbor’s cottage. Then, as now, large haystacks carry an immense risk of fire, as a single spark can create an inferno in almost the blink of an eye. So, owners usually included chimneys and other fire-prevention items. But Mr. Menlove eschewed such caution and refused to use any safety techniques at all; several neighbors warned of the possible danger for over a month. He replied, in what some would consider classic English style, that “he would chance it.” Almost inevitably, the haystack caught fire and consumed Mr. Vaughan’s house.

The court was divided as to whether the appropriate question was “whether the Defendant had been guilty of gross negligence with reference to the standard of ordinary prudence” or if “he had acted bona fide to the best of his judgment.” The majority decided that a duty did exist, but did not offer any suggestions for applying this duty.

Donoghue v. Stevenson

It would be another hundred years before a court revisited the issue in any meaningful way. The dispute was between a Scottish woman who found the remains of a dead snail in the bottom of a ginger beer bottle and the local bottler in charge of making and distributing the beverage. Ms. Donoghue insisted that the bottler had a duty “to provide a system of working his business which would not allow snails to get into his ginger beer bottles,” an “averment” which Mr. Stevenson denied.

In resolving the dispute in favor of Ms. Stevenson, Lord Atkin used the “neighbour test:”

“The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour; [So, you] must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

The neighbour test eventually became the duty of reasonable care in English and American negligence law.

If you or a loved one was injured or killed due to someone else’s negligence, contact an experienced New Braunfels personal injury attorney. We do not charge upfront legal fees in personal injury cases.