Breach of duty in English law
In English tort law
English tort law
English tort law concerns civil wrongs, as distinguished from criminal wrongs, in the law of England and Wales. Some wrongs are the concern of the state, and so the police can enforce the law on the wrongdoers in court – in a criminal case...

, there can be no liability
Legal liability
Legal liability is the legal bound obligation to pay debts.* In law a person is said to be legally liable when they are financially and legally responsible for something. Legal liability concerns both civil law and criminal law. See Strict liability. Under English law, with the passing of the Theft...

 in negligence
Negligence is a failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances. The area of tort law known as negligence involves harm caused by carelessness, not intentional harm.According to Jay M...

 unless the claimant establishes both that they were owed a duty of care
Duty of care in English law
In English tort law, an individual may be owed a duty of care by another, to ensure that they do not suffer any unreasonable harm or loss. If such a duty is found to be breached, a legal liability is imposed upon the duty-ower, to compensate the victim for any losses they incur...

 by the defendant, and that there has been a breach of that duty. The defendant is in breach of duty towards the claimant if their conduct fell short of the standard expected under the circumstances.

General standard of care

In order not to breach a duty of care, a defendant must generally meet the standard of a 'reasonable man' as Baron Alderson stated in Blyth v Birmingham Waterworks (1856) 11 Exch 781.

A reasonable person
Reasonable person
The reasonable person is a legal fiction of the common law that represents an objective standard against which any individual's conduct can be measured...

 can be defined as 'the man on the Clapham omnibus
The man on the Clapham omnibus
The man on the Clapham omnibus is a reasonably educated and intelligent but non-specialist person — a reasonable person, a hypothetical person against whom a defendant's conduct might be judged in an English law civil action for negligence. This is the standard of care comparable to that which...

' as Greer LJ explains in Hall v Brooklands Auto-Racing Club (1933) 1 KB 205. Lord Steyn describes the term as 'commuters on the London Underground' (MacFarlane v. Tayside Health Board (1999) 3 WLR).

This is an objective standard, based on an average person. It does not require perfection, but takes into account that an average person does not foresee every risk. The average person is not assumed to be flawless, but ordinarily careful and prudent.

Special standards

The standard of "the man on the Clapham omnibus" is not applied in all cases, since this might lead to unfairness. There are defendants for whom this standard is much too low and would exonerate an obvious wrongdoing. In other cases, the standard may be seen as too demanding of the defendant in the circumstances. The most common examples are the cases of specialist defendants, inexperienced defendants and child defendants.

Skilled defendants (specialists)

The test of an ordinary average person would not be appropriate for defendants that profess or hold themselves out as professing a certain skill. The "man on the Clapham omnibus" does not have that skill and the conduct expected from a skilled professional is not the same as could be expected of an ordinary man in the same circumstances. The general standard applied to professionals is therefore that of a "reasonable professional", e.g. car mechanic, doctor etc.

Novices (imperitia culpae adnumerator)

Novices in a certain area of skill must show the same standard of care as a reasonable person with that particular skill. No allowance is given for the defendant's lack of experience.
  • Nettleship v Weston (1971) 3 All ER 581 requires a novice driver to show the same standard of care as a reasonably competent driver.

  • Wilsher v Essex Area Health Authority (1986) 3 All ER 801 expects a junior doctor to perform compliant to the standard of a competent and skilled doctor working in the same post.

  • Wells v Cooper (1958) 2 All ER 527 states that someone who does DIY jobs repairing their own house is expected to show the same standard of care as a reasonable professional of the particular trade involved.

It is important to note that the claimant's knowledge of the defendant's lack of experience in the skill he is exercising does not result in the standard being lowered. In Nettleship v Weston, a driving instructor was injured due to a mistake of his student. The student argued that the instructor was aware of her lack of experience, but the Court of Appeal
Court of Appeal of England and Wales
The Court of Appeal of England and Wales is the second most senior court in the English legal system, with only the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom above it...

 refused to accommodate this fact in their decision on the standard of care expected from her. At the same time, the teacher's award of damages was reduced due to his contributory negligence
Contributory negligence
Contributory negligence in common-law jurisdictions is defense to a claim based on negligence, an action in tort. It applies to cases where a plaintiff/claimant has, through his own negligence, contributed to the harm he suffered...



While no allowance is made for novices, the courts are prepared to lower the standard of care expected of children, on account of their age. A child defendant is expected to meet the standard of a reasonable child of the same age.
  • Gough v Thorne (1966) 3 All ER 398: a 13½ year old girl was not contributorily negligent
    Contributory negligence
    Contributory negligence in common-law jurisdictions is defense to a claim based on negligence, an action in tort. It applies to cases where a plaintiff/claimant has, through his own negligence, contributed to the harm he suffered...

     when she crossed the road without looking after being beckoned by a lorry driver and was hit by a car driving at excessive speed.
  • Mullin v Richards [1998] 1 All ER 920: a fifteen year old girl was not negligent when she was play fighting with a friend and a ruler she was fencing with shattered, a splinter flying into the other girl's eye.

Conduct expected of a reasonable person

In the usual case, having established that there is a duty of care, the claimant must prove that the defendant failed to do what the reasonable person
Reasonable person
The reasonable person is a legal fiction of the common law that represents an objective standard against which any individual's conduct can be measured...

 ("reasonable professional", "reasonable child") would have done in the same situation. If the defendant fails to come up to the standard, this will be a breach of the duty of care. This is judged by reference to the following factors:
  • What did the defendant know? According to Denning LJ. in Roe v Minister of Health
    Roe v Minister of Health
    Roe v Minister of Health [1954] 2 All ER 131 is an English tort law decision of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales which has had a significant influence on the common law throughout the common law world.-Facts:...

    (1954) 2 AER 131, the defendant will only be liable if the reasonable person would have foreseen the loss or damage in the circumstances prevailing at the time of the alleged breach of duty.
  • What was the degree of risk? The greater the risk that serious harm can be inflicted, the greater the precautions that the defendant will be required to take. In Bolton v Stone[1951] A.C. 850, [1951] 1 All E.R. 1078, a cricket club was not negligent when a ball was hit out of the ground and injured the plaintiff, because the likelihood of this occurring was so small that the defendant could not be expected to have taken precautions. In Miller v. Jackson
    Miller v. Jackson
    Miller v Jackson [1977] QB 966 is a famous Court of Appeal case in the torts of negligence and nuisance. The court considered whether the defendant - the chairman of a local cricket club, on behalf of its members - was liable in nuisance or negligence when cricket balls were hit over the boundary...

    ([1977] QB 966, [1977] 3 WLR 20, [1977] 3 All ER 338 however, the ball was hit out of the ground several times every season. In these circumstances, the club was expected to take precautions.
  • How practical were these precautions? In Wilson v Governor of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Primary School (1997) EWCA Civ 2644 it was held that a primary school was not negligent in not employing someone to supervise the playground after the close of school hours and until all the children had left. In Haley v London Electricity Board [1964] 3 All ER 185, a blind man fell into a hole in the ground that was indicated by a visual sign. He became deaf as a result. It was held that it was foreseeable that a blind man would be walking on the street and the risk of him injuring himself justified the precautions of putting up a barrier. The test is a balance of reasonableness of precautions against the likelihood of injury being sustained.
  • What is the social importance of the defendant's activity? If the defendant's actions serve a socially useful purpose then they may have been justified in taking greater risks. Thus, in Watt v Hertfordshire CC (1954) 2 AER 368, the fire brigade was not negligent in getting the wrong vehicle to the scene of an accident because valuable time would have been lost in getting the best vehicle there to help. Since 26 July 2006, this consideration has had a statutory basis under section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006
    Compensation Act 2006
    The Compensation Act 2006 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, introduced in response to concerns about a growing compensation culture but conversely to ensure that the public received dependable service from claims management companies...

  • Common practice. A defendant complying with a common practice in his area of activity will usually be considered to have met the standard of a reasonable man, unless the court judges the practice itself to be negligent. In Paris v Stepney Borough Council
    Paris v Stepney Borough Council
    Paris v Stepney Borough Council [1950] UKHL 3 was a decision of the House of Lords that significantly affected the concept of Standard of care in common law. The plaintiff Paris was employed by the then Stepney Borough Council as a general garage-hand. He had sight in only one eye, and his employer...

    (1951) 1 AER 42 although there was a practice of not providing employees with safety goggles, the Council owed a special duty to protect the claimant because he had already lost the sight of one eye.

Sporting events

The conduct expected from a participant in a sports event towards his competitors or spectators differs from the conduct of a reasonable person outside such events. It has been held that in the "heat and flurry" of a competition, a participant will only be in breach of duty towards other participants and spectators if he shows "reckless disregard for their safety". At the same time, in another case,
the standard of care expected from one player towards another is the usual standard of taking "all reasonable care in the circumstances in which they were placed", although in that case the defendant was also found to be acting recklessly. It is not clear at present if and how the two approaches can be reconciled.

Burden of proof

Whether or not the defendant in a given case has conducted himself below the standard of "a reasonable person" is a question of fact and it is for the claimant to prove this fact. However, in certain situations it is unlikely that a certain event could take place without the defendant's negligence, for example if a surgeon left a scalpel in the patient's body. In such cases, it is said that "the thing speaks for itself" (res ipsa loquitur
Res ipsa loquitur
In the common law of negligence, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur states that the elements of duty of care and breach can be sometimes inferred from the very nature of an accident or other outcome, even without direct evidence of how any defendant behaved...

), and it is for the defendant to show that the fact causing the damage was not attributable to his negligence.

The claimant may raise res ipsa loquitur to shift the evidential burden to the defendant. To do so, following criteria must be satisfied:

1. The incident occurred in an unexplainable fashion;

2. The incident would not have occurred in the ordinary course of events if not defendant's negligence; and

3. The defendant or defendants had control of the injury causing object.
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