When someone is accused of committing a wrongdoing (tort), and all the necessary elements of that offense are evident, the person can be held responsible for it. However, there are ways for the accused (defendant) to escape liability by using defenses recognized in the law of torts. In specific situations, certain defenses are tailored to the nature of the offense. For instance, in defamation cases, individuals can use defenses such as fair comment, privileges, and justification to counter the accusations against them.
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Meaning of General Defences
When someone takes legal action against another person for a wrongdoing (tort), the accused can be held responsible if all the necessary elements of the wrongdoing are present. However, there are ways for the accused to defend themselves and avoid liability for the alleged wrong. These defenses are commonly referred to as “general defenses” in the field of tort law.
The general defences in Law of Torts can be listed as:
- Volenti Non fit Injuria
- Plaintiff the wrongdoer
- Inevitable Accident
- Act of God
- Private Defence
- Statutory Authority
Volenti Non fit Injuria
If someone willingly accepts a certain level of harm, they can’t later complain about it under tort law. This defense, known as “Volenti non fit injuria,” stems from the idea that you can’t enforce a right you’ve voluntarily given up. This consent can be either explicit or implied. For instance, if you invite someone to your house, you can’t sue them for trespassing.
Likewise, agreeing to a surgical procedure means you can’t later sue the surgeon. If you’re aware of the content and agree to its publication, you can’t sue for defamation. In sports, players are considered ready to accept certain risks, and spectators can’t claim damages for injuries suffered during a game. However, for this defense to apply, the harm should not exceed the limits of what was consented to.
- In the case of Hall v. Brooklands Auto Racing Club, a spectator was injured during a car racing event, and the court ruled that the spectator willingly assumed the risk by attending the race.
- In Padmavati v. Dugganaika, strangers who voluntarily took a lift in a jeep couldn’t hold the driver’s master liable for injuries resulting from a vehicle accident. In Wooldrige v. Sumner, a plaintiff frightened by a horse’s gallop couldn’t hold the defendants liable because they had taken necessary precautions.
- Similarly, in Thomas v. Quartermaine, an employee injured himself while attempting a dangerous task, and the defendant was not held liable. The principle of Volenti non fit injuria was not applicable in these cases.
- In Illot v. Wilkes, a trespasser knowingly took the risk and got injured by spring guns, and the defendant was not held liable. This defense also applies to situations like having a fierce dog at home or broken glass at property boundaries, where the harm is not actionable.
Plaintiff the wrongdoer
The idea that a person can’t benefit from their own wrongdoing has been around for a while, and it’s seen as fair and just. Imagine this: someone trespasses onto another person’s property, and in the darkness, they end up getting hurt. According to this principle, they can’t demand compensation because their injury resulted from their own wrongful action.
But here’s the twist: this defense only applies if the injury is caused by the plaintiff’s wrongful act. It doesn’t work if the injury results from the defendant’s wrongful act, even if the plaintiff was engaged in some unrelated wrongdoing.
Take the case of Bird vs. Holbrook in 1828, for instance. The person who got hurt was trespassing on the defendant’s property, and they got injured by a spring gun. Since the defendant had set up spring guns without any warning, they were held responsible for the harm caused. So, it’s not just about who’s doing something wrong, but also about who’s responsible for the specific harm that occurs.
An accident means an unexpected occurrence of something that could not have been predicted or prevented. In such a case, the defendants will not be liable if they had no intention to cause it and if the plaintiff is injured because of it.
For example, in Stanley vs Powell 1891, the plaintiff and the defendant were members of a shooting party. The defendant shot a bird but the bulled ricocheted off a tree and hit the plaintiff. The defendant was not held liable because it was an accident and the defendant did not intend it and could neither have prevented it.
However, the defence of an Inevitable Accident is not a license to negligence.
For example, A has hired B’s car. While driving, one of the tires bursts and causes an accident injuring A. Here, if the tires were worn out and were in bad condition, it would be negligence of B and he would be held liable for A’s injuries.
Act of God
In legal terms, an “act of God” refers to an unexpected and uncontrollable event caused by natural forces, like earthquakes or floods, that couldn’t have been foreseen or prevented. It’s not fair to hold someone responsible for damages resulting from such events. Two key conditions must be met for this defense to apply: the cause must be natural, and the event must be extraordinary or unforeseeable.
For instance, if heavy monsoon rains are normal and a wall collapses, causing harm, it’s not considered an act of God because precautions for such expected conditions should have been taken. However, if a building crumbles during a massive earthquake, resulting in injuries or fatalities, this defense may be valid. Courts have clarified that the criminal actions of a disorderly mob don’t qualify as acts of God.
In simpler terms, if someone is defending themselves or their property, the law allows them to use a reasonable amount of force to prevent harm. If, in the process, someone gets hurt, it’s generally not considered a legal offense. However, it’s important that the force used is not too much; it has to be just enough to protect oneself or one’s belongings.
For instance, there was a case where someone set up spring guns on their property without warning. The court ruled that this was excessive force, and the person was held responsible for the injury caused to someone who had trespassed on their property, even though they were technically defending it.
In most situations, making a mistake isn’t considered a valid excuse in legal matters, especially when it comes to tort actions. So, if you end up accidentally hurting someone because you thought they were trespassing on your property, that wouldn’t typically be a defensible action.
However, there are some scenarios where a mistake could be seen as a valid defense. Take the example of malicious prosecution. To be held accountable, it’s necessary to show that the person acted with malice and without a reasonable cause. If the prosecution happened only because of an honest mistake, it might not be legally actionable. Additionally, if someone genuinely believes in the truth of a statement, that belief can serve as a defense in a deceit case.
If someone does something that causes harm, but it’s done to prevent even more serious harm, we might consider it excusable. Take, for instance, a ship accidentally running over a small boat and injuring two people to avoid colliding with another ship, potentially harming hundreds of people.
In a similar vein, in the case of Leigh vs. Gladstone in 1909, force-feeding a hunger-striking prisoner to save her life was seen as a reasonable defense against a charge of battery. The idea is that sometimes tough decisions are made to prevent greater harm, and in those situations, the actions are more understandable and justifiable.
Imagine a scenario where a normally troublesome action becomes totally okay if it’s given the green light by the law. So, let’s say someone did something that would usually be considered a problem, but because the government said it was okay, they’re off the hook for any blame. Picture this: there’s a company running a train near your land, and a fire breaks out in your woods because of sparks from their engine.
Now, ordinarily, you might think they’re at fault, right? But, surprise! Since the government said it’s cool for them to run the train, and they’ve been doing it responsibly, turns out they’re not on the hook for any damage caused by the fire. It’s like a get-out-of-jail-free card provided by the law!