General Principle of Liability

There are two theories with regard to the basic principle of liability in the law of torts or tort. They are:

# Wider and narrower theory- all injuries done by one person to another are torts, unless there is some justification recognized by law.

# Pigeon-hole theory- there is a definite number of torts outside which liability in tort does not exist.

The first theory was propounded by Professor Winfield. According to this, if I injure my neighbour, he can sue me in tort, whether the wrong happens to have a particular name like assault, battery, deceit or slander, and I will be liable if I cannot prove lawful justification. This leads to the wider principle that all unjustifiable harms are tortious.

This enables the courts to create new torts and make defendants liable irrespective of any defect in the pleading of the plaintiff. This theory resembles the saying, my duty is to hurt nobody by word or deed.

This theory is supported by Pollock and courts have repeatedly extended the domain of the law of torts. For example, negligence became a new specific tort only by the 19th century AD. Similarly the rule of strict liability for the escape of noxious things from one’s premises was laid down in 1868 in the leading case if Rylands v. Fletcher.

The second theory was proposed by Salmond. It resembles the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the bible. According to this theory, I can injure my neighbour as much as I like without fear of his suing me in tort provided my conduct does not fall under the rubric of assault, deceit, slander or any other nominate tort.

The law of tort consists of a neat set of pigeon holes, each containing a labeled tort. If the defendant’s wrong does not fit any of these pigeon holes he has not committed any tort.

The advocates of the first theory argue that decisions such as Donoghue v. Stevenson shows that the law of tort is steadily expanding and that the idea of its being cribbed, cabined and confined in a set of pigeon holes in untenable.

However salmond argues in favour of his theory that just as criminal law consists of a body of rules establishing specific offences, so the law of torts consists of a body of rules establishing specific injuries. Neither in the one case nor in the other is there any general principle of liability.

Whether I am prosecuted fro an alleged offence or sued fro an alleged tort it is for my adversary to prove that the case falls within some specific and established rule of liability and not fro for me to defend myself by proving that it is within some specific and established rule of justification or excuse. For salmond the law must be called The Law of Torts rather that The Law of Tort.

There is, however, no recognition of either theory. It would seem more realistic fro the student to approach the tortious liability from a middle ground. In an Indian decision, Lala Punnalal v. Kasthurichand Ramaji , it was pointed out that there is nothing like an exhaustive classification of torts beyond which courts should not proceed, that new invasion of rights devised by human ingenuity might give rise to new classes of torts.

On the whole if we are asked to express our preference between the two theories, in the light of recent decisions of competent courts we will have to choose the first theory of liability that the subsequent one.

Thus it is a matter of interpretation of courts so as to select between the two theories. The law of torts has in the main been developed by courts proceeding from the simple problems of primitive society to those of our present complex civilization.

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By Hassham

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