Common Questions on Tort
- What is Tort?
- What is Tort Law?
- What are the Important Aspects Torts?
- What are the General Defences to Torts?
- What are the Types of Torts?
What is Tort?
The origin of the word tort is the latin word ‘tortum’ which means ‘to twist’. Tort does not have a standard universal definition but the generic idea is that tort is a civil wrong for which the remedy is a common law action for unliquidated damages and which is not exclusively the breach of a contract or the breach of a trust or other merely equitable obligation. Not all civil wrongs are torts.
What is Tort Law?
Tort law in India is a relatively new common law development supplemented by codifying statutes including statutes governing damages. While India generally follows the UK approach, there are certain differences which may indicate judicial activism, hence creating controversy. Tort is breach of some duty independent of contract which has caused damage to the plaintiff giving rise to civil cause of action and for which  remedy is available. If there is no remedy it cannot be called a tort because the essence of tort is to give remedy to the person who has suffered injury.
Important aspects of Law of Torts:
For an act to constitute a tort, it must satisfy certain conditions, there must be some act or omission on the part of the defendant, which in turn should have resulted in legal damage (injuria), i.e., violation of a legal right vested in the plaintiff.
The relevant factor for commission of tort is the presence of a ‘legal damage’ which need not be causing actual tangible damage, whereas, an act which is causing some substantial damage but not a legal damage would not constitute tort. For example, in cases of trespass, the person trespassing may not damage the property he entered but would still constitute a legal injury, whereas, in case a competitor due to whatever legal reasons may cause massive losses to another person but would still not have committed a Tortious act.
Torts don’t necessarily stem from Statutes only and can stem from common law principles. Torts in India stem like the other common law jurisdictions stems from both statute and common law.
General Defences to Torts:
There are certain defences which are of a generic nature and can be availed in most of the tort cases. They are the following-
- Volenti non fit injuria – this refers to voluntary assumption of risk. When someone suffers harm with their own consent then it acts as a complete defence for the defendant. However, mere knowledge of the risk(scienti non fit injuria) does not imply consent, for example, if a driver is forced by his employer to drive a vicious horse and he drives that under protest, then he will be entitled to claim such compensation in case an injury is caused to him(Bowater v. Rawley Regis Corporation). Doctrine does not imply to rescue cases though.
- Plaintiff the wrongdoer – No action arises from an immoral cause. If the harm suffered by the plaintiff is fundamentally linked with the wrong act of himself then the defendant may use it as a defence. For example, if the plaintiff drives an overloaded truck despite strict instructions not to, and eventually suffers harm due to the bridge breaking, then the defendant has a defence available. However, plaintiff is not disabled from recovering in tort unless some unlawful act or conduct on his own part is connected with the harm suffered by him as part of the same transaction.
- Inevitable Accident – An unforeseeable & unavoidable accident in spite of reasonable care taken on defendant’s part acts as a defence. Inevitable refers to a situation wherein it was not avoidable by the precautions which a reasonable man would have implemented.
- Act of God – It is similar to the idea of “Inevitable Accident”, but the forces here are forces of God/Nature, i.e., floods, storms, etc. It acts as a defence to the idea of “Strict Liability”.(summary of ‘strict liability’ is below)
- Private Defence – Law permits use of reasonable force to protect one’s person or property. However there should be presence of an ‘imminent threat’.
- Mistake – Mistake, whether of fact or law, is generally not a defence for torts. However, in torts requiring malice as an element, the liability does not arise when the defendant acts under an honest and mistaken belief.
- Necessity – An act causing damage if done under necessity to prevent greater evil is not actionable even though harm was caused intentionally. For example, throwing goods overboard a ship to lighten it for saving the ship and persons on board the ship.
- Statutory Authority – When an act is done under the authority of an Act, it is a complete defence and the injured party has no remedy except for claiming such compensation as may have been provided by the statute.
Types of Tort Law:
There are three primary categories of tort law- intentional torts, negligent torts and strict liability torts. In India the concept of absolute liability also exists which shall be spoken of later.
Intentional torts are those torts which are committed with the intention of undergoing an activity which would end up in causing injuria (violation of legal right) of someone for example trespassing or battery(harmful or offensive contact with another person). Negligent torts are those torts that are born out of negligence on part of person and not because of the intention to cause a legal harm to someone, for example, if someone breaks a cup in anger part of which end up hurting someone else. Then there are strict liability torts, sometimes seen as product liability torts, these are torts when there is an imposition of liability on a party even in the absence of finding of a fault like a tortious intent or negligence, for example the production head of a company being strictly liable even for a fault committed by a labourer working under him.
The concept of strict liability was discussed in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher. In this case, the defendant had constructed a water reservoir which his hired engineers ended up building on top of an abandoned coal mine, Rylands (the defendant) was unaware of this fact. Eventually the reservoir broke down and ended up harming Fletcher’s coal mines for which a lawsuit was subsequently filed. Rylands was held “strictly liable” and it was observed that a person who for his own purposes keeps on his land anything with the potential of causing mischief will be prima facie answerable for the damage which happens as a natural consequence of its escape.
In India, there is a unique concept known as the principle of “Absolute liability”. In the case of ‘M.C. Mehta v. Union of India’ there was leakage of oleum gas which caused harm to the people exposed to the gas leak. It was in Court’s mind that an year ago Bhopal Gas Tragedy had happened hence Court gave a judgement befitting of a crime of a nature which has the potential to cause such great tragedy. The ratio followed here was similar to the concept of Strict Liability with the addition of ‘Absolute Liability’ not being subjected to any of the exceptions or defences of the rule of Strict Liability.