An inevitable accident: A general valid defences against a tort committed

All recent authorities support the view that ‘inevitable accident’ negatives liability. An ‘inevitable accident’ is that which could not possibly, be prevented by the exercise of ordinary care, caution and skill. It means an accident physically unavoidable. It does not apply to anything which either party might have avoided. In the words of Chief Justice Shaw of Massachusetts, it is an accident such as the defendant could not have avoided by use of the kind and degree of care necessary to the exigency, and the circumstances, in which he was placed. If in the performance of a lawful act, done with all due care, damage ensues through some unavoidable reason, such damage affords no cause of action. “People must guard against reasonable probabilities, but they are not bound to guard against fantastic possibilities.

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In A. Krishna Patra v. Orissa State Electricity Board, the Court explained inevitable act and held that an inevitable is an event which happens not only without the concurrence of the will of the man, but in spite of all efforts on his part of prevent it. It means, an accident physically unavoidable, something which cannot be prevented by human skill or foresight.

In Stanley v. Powell the plaintiffs and the defendants were members of a shooting party. The defendant fired at a pheasant (kind of bird) but unfortunately the shot from his gun hit an oak tree and rebounded and injured the plaintiff. It was held that the injury to plaintiff was the consequence of an inevitable accident and, therefore, the defendant was not liable.

In Fardon v. Harcourt the defendant and his wife parked his motor car in front of a shop and went into a shop for purchasing something. They left their dog inside the car. Before leaving the car the defendant had closed its doors properly. The dog had always been quiet and docile. The plaintiff was passing near the car. The dog seeing his gorgeus clothes, was excited and started barking and jumped into the car and smashed a glass panel of the car. A piece of the glass entered the plaintiff’s eye, which had to be removed. In an action for damages it was held that the plaintiff could not recover as there was no negligence on the part of the defendant in not taking precautions against it.

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In Holmes v. Mather the defendant’s horses, driven by his servant in the public highway startled and ran away on the barking of a dog and became so unmanageable that inspite of the best care taken by the driver to control them they struck the balcony of the plaintiff’s house. The plaintiff who was standing in the balcony was seriously injured. It was held that no action was maintainable by the plaintiff, for the servant had done his best under the circumstances to control the horses.

In Brown of Kendall the plaintiff’s and defendant’s dogs were fighting with each other. The defendant was beating them in order to separate them and the plaintiff was looking on. In so doing the defendant accidentally hit the plaintiff in the eye inflicting upon him a severe injury. The plaintiff brought an action against the defendant for damages. It was held that the injury was the result of accident for which no action could lie. To separate fighting dogs was a legal act and there was no negligence on the part of defendant in doing the act.

In Padmavati v. Dugganika two strangers took lift in a jeep. When the driver was taking the jeep to the petrol pump station for filling petrol the bolt fixing the right front wheel of the jeep to the axle game way and the right wheel flew away from the axle and consequently the jeep toppled and the two strangers were seriously injured and one of them died. On inquiry it was found that it was a sheer accident and there was no evidence to show that the defect was patent and could have been detected by periodical check-up. It was held that the driver and the master were not liable.

No action can be taken against an accidental damage to the property caused by an inevitable accident. For example, take the cases of Nitro Glycerine and National Coal Broad v. Evans.

In Nitro Glycerine case the defendants were a firm of carriers. They were given a wooden box for being carried from one place to another. They had no knowledge of the contents in the box, nor there was any indication by which it could be found that it contained an explosive. Finding some leakage in the box, the defendants took them to their office to examine it. The office was situated on the house of the plaintiff. While the box was being opened the Nitro-Glycerine in the box exploded and damaged plaintiff’s house. It was held that the defendants could neither with ordinary prudence suspect that the box contained a poisonous gas like nitro-glycerine, nor it was their duty to know it Unless they had knowledge about the explosive. They were not required to be careful. The Court further said that if person is doing a lawful act and in the course of doing it an accident takes place, he would not be liable for the damage, provided he had taken so much care as a man of an ordinary prudence would have taken in the above circumstances. In this case, the plaintiff’s were dong a lawful act, and they had taken due care. Inspite of this the accident occurred and, therefore they were not liable.

In S. Vedantacharya v. High Way Department South Arcot on 14th November, 1960 when a bus was passing over a culvert on the road the  culvert gave way and the bus fell into the stream as a result of which one passenger travelling in the bus died. In an action by the representative of the deceased it was contended that the accident had occurred due to the negligence of the highway authorities and, therefore; they were liable for damages. The highway authorities contended that they were not liable as the accident could not be anticipated. They said that there were very heavy rains during the last 15 days resulting in the breach of a nearby lake and the water entered the culvert with terrible velocity (force) which damaged the culvert. The Engineers, report disclosed that the culvert was sound a day before and the normal traffic had passed through it. The Supreme Court overruled the decision of the Madras High Court and held that the highway department was liable because making suitable provision for strengthening the culvert and bridges against heavy rain and flood, which can be anticipated, was their duty and by not performing their duty they were liable for negligence. The highway department could not be absolved from liability by merely claiming that the accident was due to heavy rain and flood. They have to further prove that the necessary preventing measures had been taken by anticipating such rains and flood. Since the highway department had failed to prove that such measures were taken, it was not an inevitable accident and, therefore, they were liable.

Similarly, in Oriental Fire & General Ins. Co. Ltd. V. Raj Pant the front right spring and putta of truck was suddenly broken down and the truck went out of control and collided with a tractor coming from the opposite direction. The driver of the tractor and its owner failed to prove that they had taken reasonable precautions to make the truck road-worthy i.e., the mechanical defect was such that it could not be detected inspite of reasonable precaution. It was held that it was not an inevitable accident but a case of negligence and, therefore, the defendants were liable.

Distinction between “inevitable accident” and “act of God”

Dr. Winfield says that “an act of God is much older, much simpler and much more easily grasped by primitive people than is the idea of ‘inevitable accident.’ A falling tree, a flash of lightning, a tornado, or flood presents to the observer a simple and dramatic fact which the variest child or layman would regard as an excuse for harm done without further argument…. But the accidents which are not convulsions of nature are a very different matter. To know whether injury from a run away horse was inevitable, one must ask ‘would a careful driver have let it run away……. ‘Inevitable accident’ differs from the act of God in (i) not depending on ‘natural forces’; (ii) being a general defence. All cases of inevitable accident’ may be divided into two classes:

(1) those which are occasioned by the elementary forces of nature unconnected with the agency of man or other cause; and

(2) those which have their origin either in whole or in part in the agency of man, whether in the commission or omission, non-feasance or misfeasance, or in any other causes independent of the agency of natural forces. The term “act of God” is applicable  to the former class. The latter type of accidents are termed ‘inevitable accident’ or “unavoidable accidents.”

An act of God will be extraordinary occurrence due to natural cause, which is not the result of any human intervention, which could not be avoided by any foresight and care, e.g., a fire caused by lighting, But an accidental fire, though it might not have resulted from any act or omission of common carrier, cannot be an act of God.

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