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Remoteness Of Damage In The Light Of Tort

Remoteness of damage is an interesting principle. Once the damage is caused by a wrong, there have to be liabilities. The question is how much liability can be fixed, and what factor determines it. The principle of Remoteness of Damages is relevant to such cases. An event constituting a wrong can constitute of single consequence or may constitute of consequences i.e. series of acts/wrongs. The damage may be proximate or might be remote, or too remote.

  1. In law, the damage must be direct and the natural result of the consequence of the act of the defendant. Otherwise, the plaintiff will not succeed. This is In jure non remota causased proxima spectatur (In law the immediate, not the remote cause of any event that is to be considered). The reason for this is that the defendant is presumed to have intended the natural consequences, but not the remote damage. It means then that the defendant's act must be the Causa Causans or the proximate (near) cause.
  2. Novus actus interveniens: (new act intervening)
    The act and the consequences are to be connected directly and the defendant will not be liable for Novus actus interveniens and the consequences thereof.

Scott v. Shepherd (Squib case)

D threw a lighted squib into a crowd. It fell on X. who threw it further, It fell on Y who threw it away. It fell on P, exploded and blinded one eye. Held, D was liable to P. Though X and Y had intervened, D's act was the Causa Causans. The defendant pleaded novus actus intreveniens but the court rejected this defence.

In Haynes v. Harwood, the unattended horse van of D started running as some boys had thrown stones at the horse. The policeman who attempted to stop the horse was injured. Held D liable. The contention that the throwing of stones was an intervening cause and hence D was not liable was rejected by the court.

A person is going driving on a road, he hits a girl on the footpath, the girl tumbles on a bicycle breaks her finger, the bicycle man loses his balance and gets in front of a fuel tanker, the tanker to save the man on the bicycle steers left but unfortunately hits the railing to a river bridge and falls into it, the lock of the fuel tank breaks and the oil spills into the river , the driver with the truck drowns.

In the above case:
The girl being hit is the direct damage and it is the direct damage caused by the act of A, the damage caused to the cyclist is proximately caused by the falling of the girl and is remote to the act of A, the damage caused to the truck driver and the loss of material(fuel and fuel tank) is remote to the act of A and proximate to the act of the cyclist. And it is to be noted that the accountability to negligence is made on the assumption that the person is aware of the fact that rash driving can lead to fatalities. (though the expected and the actual results might not be the same).

Now, the starting point of any rule of the remoteness of damage is the familiar idea that a line must be drawn somewhere. It would be unacceptably harsh for every tort feasor to be responsible for all the consequences which he has caused.

Certainly, the question of where to draw the line on recover-ability of consequential losses cannot be answered by a mathematically precise formula. Judges have used their discretion from time to time, and in that process, two formulas have been highlighted:
  1. The test of reasonable foresight
  2. The test of directness
  3. Direct damage.

Two tests to find out direct damage.

  1. The test of reasonable foresight.
  2. The test of directness.

The Test Of Reasonable Foresight

If the consequences of a wrongful act could be foreseen by a reasonable man, then they are not too remote. If on the other hand, a reasonable man could not have foreseen the consequences, then they are too remote. And, an individual shall be liable only for the consequences which are not too remote i.e. which could be foreseen.

The Test Of Directness

According to the test of directness, a person is liable for all the direct consequences of his wrongful act, whether he could foresee them or not; because consequences which directly follow a wrongful act are not too remote.

The test of reasonable foresight means that the liability of the defendant extends only to those consequences, which could have been foreseen by a reasonable man. This theory was rejected in 1921, and the second theory was applied in re Polemis and Furnace Ltd case. In this case, D chartered P's vessel to carry a cargo which included petrol. Some cases were leaking and there were vapours of petrol. D's servants while shifting cargo negligently knocked at a plank which fell rubbing the wood and got ignited. As a result the entire vessel caught fire and was destroyed. Held, D was liable. It was due to the negligence of D's servants that the fire had broken out and hence D was liable for all the consequences, even though those could not reasonably have been anticipated.

This theory was rejected in the Wagon Mound Case 1960; there is a return to the old reasonable foresight test.

The Wagon Mound, an oil-tanker vessel, was chartered by D and had been moved at Sydney (Australia) harbour. At a distance of about 600 feet, P had a wharf, where repairs of a ship were going on. Due to the negligence of D's servants, oil spilt from the wagon Mound, spread over to the wharf where P was making some welding operations. P's manager stopped his welding work, enquired D whether he could safely continue the welding. D assured no danger. P's manager himself believed that the oil was non-inflammatory on water, and continued welding work. Two days later molten metal from the wagon Mound fell on cotton waste, ignited and caused a great damage to the wharf and the equipment.

The Privy Council in England held that D (Wagon Mound) was not liable.

The Court applied the test of reasonable foresight and rejected the direct rule theory. It overruled Re Polemis case. It said after the event a fool is wise. But, it is not the hind sight of a fool; it is the foresight of a reasonable man which alone can determine responsibility.

What the reasonable man ought to foresee, corresponds with the common conscience of mankind and hence, the test of reasonable foresee ability must be applied. Judged from this, it was held not liable. This decision has been approved in a recent case Hughes v. Lord Advocate (1963).

The term remoteness of damages refers to the legal test used for deciding which type of loss caused by the breach of contract may be compensated by an award of damages. It has been distinguished from the term measure of damages or quantification which refers to the method of assessing in money the compensation for a particular consequence or loss which has been held to be not too remote. 

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