A Short History of Negligence Lawsuits

Published by Marshall & Gibson Lawyers on the 15 May 2012

The history of negligence lawsuits has essentially been an attempt to determine what is considered to be a reasonable duty of care given a certain set of circumstances. As the way we live has changed, this has obviously come under a great variety of interpretations, but duty of care has always been at the centre. The following is a short history of negligence lawsuits.

Donoghue v. Stevenson

This groundbreaking case involved a Ms. Donoghue, who found a snail in her bottle of ginger beer and filed a lawsuit against the maker of the product. Donoghue won on the basis that it was agreed that the manufacturer had a duty of care to the consumer in ensuring they suffered no physical or psychological injury from using or ingesting its product. This decision was extremely significant, as a similar lawsuit 20 years prior involving a Mr. Bates had ruled that injuries suffered by Mr. Bates when his bottle of ginger beer exploded in his face were not the fault of the manufacturer. Ms. Donoghue’s case helped solidify the idea of psychological damages in regards to duty of care.

Hedley Byrne & Co. Ltd. v. Heller & Partners Ltd.

This case saw a significant expansion of the duty-of-care principle, extending it to cover words as well as deeds. The case focused on whether or not banks were liable for faulty advice they gave their clients, with the case producing the famous quote of Lord Reid, when he said, “It would be strange if a person who handled his pen so carelessly as to put out X’s eye were liable to pay damages, but not if he handled it so carelessly in writing that X was financially ruined.”

Caltex Oil (Australia) Pty. Ltd. v. The Dredge ‘Willemstad’

This case involved oil giant Caltex and a smaller company, AOR, whom Caltex had hired to refine its oil. Through the careless operating of a dredge, an underwater pipe was damaged, halting operations and causing Caltex to have to make alternate business arrangements, and therefore suffering economic loss. While AOR covered the costs of repairing the pipe, the court ruled that Caltex was not entitled to further compensation. The Chief Justice stated, “The fact that the loss was foreseeable is not enough to make the (economic loss) recoverable. However, there are exceptional cases in which the defendant has knowledge or means of knowledge that the plaintiff individually, and not merely as a member of an unascertained class, will be likely to suffer economic loss as a consequence of his negligence and owes the plaintiff a duty to take care not to cause him such damage by his negligent act.”

There have been competing viewpoints on negligence ever since ideas of responsibility first emerged among humans, though the basic idea everyone seems to agree on is that wherever possible, you should try and avoid having your actions harm anyone else in any way. With new technology, it remains to be seen what will be decided as constituting harming someone in relation to new devices and phenomenon such as social media, though this is sure to be something fought out by personal injury lawyers and compensation lawyers in courtrooms across the country.