Negligence: Basic Principles

AuthorPhilip H. Osborne
The tort of negligence is composed of a number of components or ele-
ments, most of which must be proved by the plaintiff. These elements
are not all self-evident. They are conventional concepts that the courts
have found of assistance in clarifying, organi zing, and analyzing t he
various issues t hat present themselves in negligence litigat ion.
There are three core elements: the negligent a ct, causation, and dam-
age. It is, indeed, diff‌icult to conceive of negligence liability w ithout
proof of these three core elements. The negligent act is determined by
identifying t he appropriate standard of care and applying it to the fact s
of the case. Causation is e stablished by showing a link bet ween the
defendant’s negligent act and the plaintiff ’s damage. Damage is the vital
element that triggers t he claim and launches the litigation process.
In Canadian negl igence law, however, a defendant is not responsible
for every consequence of his negligent act. Important and contentious
issues in respect of the extent of liability, the range of plaintiffs, the
nature of the loss, and the nature of the defendant’s activities must be
addressed. Consequently, control devices have been developed to keep
negligence liability with in appropriate boundaries. There are two critic-
ally important control devices i n negligence law: duty of care and remote-
ness of damage. Negligence liability cannot be established unless the
judge recognizes that t he defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care i n
respect of the plainti ff’s interests. This concept allows judges to regulate
the application and extent of negligence liability, excluding it from cer-
tain activities, denying its applicability to cert ain kinds of losses, and
excluding certain persons from the scope of the defendant’s respons-
ibility.1 Remoteness of damage plays a similar role. A negligent act may
have utterly improbable consequences that are entirely removed in time
and place from the defendant’s act. Causation cannot be denied, but fai r-
ness may dictate th at the defendant should be sheltered from respons-
ibility for some or all of the consequences of his negligent conduct. In
such circumstances, the court may hold that the consequences are too
remote and not compensable by the defendant. The manner in which
the courts apply the concepts of duty of care and remoteness of damage
ref‌lect social policy and cur rent judicial attitudes to the extent of liabil-
ity for negligent conduct. Throughout the twentieth century, there was
an unrelenting, incremental rel axation of the boundaries of negligence
liability and a dra matic expansion in the scope of t he tort of negligence.
In this centur y the pace of expansion has slowed but the control devices
continue to play an important role, particularly in cases of nervous
shock and pure economic loss, and they are of central import ance when
novel claims are made involving t he application of negligence law to
new activities, persons, or kinds of damage.
Once the plaintiff h as established these elements, the defendant
may assert any of four defences. Contributory negligence by the plaintiff
is a partia l defence leading to a proportionate reduction in the quan-
tum of damages. Voluntary assu mption of risk is a complete defence that
arises where t he plaintiff con sents to the defendant’s negligence and its
consequences. Illegality operates to deny a claim, such as one for future
illegal earnings, that would subvert the integrity of the legal system.
Finally, a defendant may assert th at, in spite of indications to the con-
trary, the loss was caused, not by his fault, but by an inevitable a ccident.
This, too, is a complete defence.
Once liability has been established upon a consideration of the
aforementioned elements, damages must be assessed. Damages are
tailored to the plainti ff’s individual losses and are made in a lump sum
1 Some judges and comment ators begin their ana lysis of the tort of negligence
with the is sue of the duty of care. Nothing of imp ortance turns on the orde r
in which the es sential elements of the negl igence action are considered. There
was, however, some debate on the se quencing of analysis wit h respect to breach
of the standa rd of care and causation in med ical malpractice litigat ion. It now
seems sett led that the standard of c are issue must be resolved before c ausation
is considered. S ee Bafaro v Dowd, [2010] OJ No 979 (CA) and McCardle Estate v
Cox, [2003] AJ No 389 (CA).
Negligence: Bas ic Principles 27
award. Asses sment of pecuniary and non-pecuniar y losses arising from
personal injuries creates particularly diff‌icult problems.
This framework of negligence law is typical of a fault-based civil lia-
bility system. In its underlying theory, its terminology, and its concepts,
negligence law appears to be a loss- shifting system based upon the moral
imperative that wrongdoers should be indiv idually liable for the damage
they cause. In practice, the negligence system oper ates quite differently.
It is predominantly a negligence/insurance system that spread s or dis-
tributes losses c aused by negligent conduct to a broad segment of the
community. This reality has had a profound effect on the development
and application of negligence law. In the course of the twentieth century,
it promoted a dramatic growth in t he scope of liability, an increase in
the size of awards of da mages in personal injury and fatalit y claims, and
a reformulation of some of the principles of negligence law to provide
much greater protection of the interests of plainti ffs. Nevertheless, the
public face and theoretical framework of negligence law do not ref‌lect
this realit y. They continue to ref‌lect a loss-shift ing system that is bas ed
on personal accountability and i s focused on the issue of interpersonal
justice between the litigant s. Consequently, negligence law is imbued
with an unresolved tension between loss-shifting r ules and loss-spread-
ing realities. Modern Canadian negligence law continues to seek an
appropriate balance between these two competing visions of its ultim-
ate purpose.
The primary element of negligence liabilit y is the negligent act a fail-
ure to take care for the safety of the pla intiff. In determini ng the appro-
priate degree of care, it is usef ul to have some standard against which
to measure the conduct of the defendant. One could suggest a number
of possible standards such a s the degree of care shown by a parent to
a child, the care of a compassionate and hum ane person, or the care
friends exhibit to each ot her.2 The common law has, however, typically
resorted to the reasonable person when it is in need of a normative sta n-
dard of conduct, and negligence law is no exception. The standard of
2 Some other stand ards, including that of t he reasonable woman, are allude d to in
L Bender, “An Overview of Femi nist Torts Scholarship” (1993) 78 Cornell L Rev

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