Rule of Novus Actus Interveniens

Novus Actus Interveniens literally means, “a new intervening act”. As a general rule, damage is said to be too remote where it is caused by the intervening act of human volition of a third party, or when the injury to the plaintiff might have been occasioned by the intervening act of volition on the part
of the plaintiff himself. The question whether a person who has been initially negligent, would be liable for all the consequences ad infinitum, expected orĀ  or unexpected, probable or improbable, depends for its answer upon the application of a further test which has recently come into prominence, that is, the test of isolation. According to this test, where the wrongful act is isolated from the consequence by an intervening act of human volition, the chain of causation between the wrongful act and consequence is deemed to have been snapped, and the defendant ceased to be liable for such consequences as have arisen after the intervention of that other act of human volition. The prior act having exhausted itself the chain of causation has in contemplation of law been broken and the wrong-doer can no longer be held responsible for further consequence. This is spoken of as Novus actus interveniens.

Exceptions to the Rule of Novus Actus Interveniens

The following are the cases in which the defendant is liable in spite of the presence of the novus actus, that is, the intervening act of a third party.

(1) Where the intervening act has been intentionally procured by the defendant: The defendant continues to be liable for the consequences and the chain of causation is not snapped.

(2) Where the intervening actor is not fully responsible: That is, where the defendant has created a source of danger, the consequence is direct. Where the person intervening is not fully responsible for his act, and the defendant should have foreseen this irresponsibility, the chain of causation is unbroken, and the defendant remains liable. In the case of Scott v. Shephered, the defendant threw a lighted squib into a market house. It fell upon a person who threw it away from him. A third person did the same. It fell upon the plaintiff, exploded and put out one of his eyes; held that the defendant was liable.

(3) Where the intervening act is such as could be reasonably anticipated: The wrong-doer continues to be liable.

Illustrations: If a person goes up in a baloon and descends in the plaintiff’s garden which is damaged by the crowed which collects, partly out of curiosity and partly to help the defendant, the defendant is responsible for the consequences because he must have foreseen what might happen.

In Temple Bar v. Guildford, the ship Temple Bar negligently collided with Guildford, another ship. The Temple Bar offered a tow which was refused by the Guildford. The Guildford waited for a tug for several hours and sank before she could reach to the harbour. It was held that the owner of Guildford could recover the damages in respect of the Temple Bar’s negligence and the decision of the Guildford’s Master to wait for the tug was reasonable in those circumstances.

Exception: But where Novus Actus could not be anticipated, the consequences are not direct, and the defendant is not liable.

Illustration: If a railway company allows a railway carriage to be overcrowded, whereby the plaintiff, a passenger, is hustled and robbed, damage is too remote, and the railway company is not liable.

(4) Where the intervening act is mere reflex or involuntary action: On the part of the third person in exercise of defence of his rights and without intention to injure other, the defendant remains liable. Thus, in Clark v. Chambers, the defendant illegally obstructed a highway by placing in it a horizontal bar armed with iron spikes. Some third person, desiring to pass along the road and entitled to do so, removed the obstruction and negligently placed it is an upright position on the footpath. The plaintiff, walking there, on a dark night came in contract with the obstruction and one of the spikes entered his eye. The damage was held not too remote.

(5) Where the intervening act is in pursuance of duty: And the person intervenes under compulsion of legal or probable only moral duties, the consequence is direct and the defendant remains liable. Where a person seeing another in a dangerous situation caused by the wrongful act of the defendant tries to save that person, and he himself runs into danger to save life, and is thereby himself injured, he can recover damages from the defendant.

Where a person sees a little boy standing on the railway track and a train is speeding along without giving any whistle or warning and in an attempt to save the boy, the rescuer himself is killed, the railway company is liable.

(6) The doctrine of alternative danger, a choice of risk: When the plaintiff is put in a position of danger by defendant’s wrong and has to choose in a moment what course to take, his action, even if it turns out to be mistaken and unnecessary, breaks the chain of causation. The principle is that person put in sudden imminent personal danger must not be expected to exercise the same coolness and wisdom which he would have displayed apart from emergency. (7) Where the novus actus is caused by an irresponsible actor it does break the chain of causation. Children generally do not constitute novus actus where their action is the result of their mischievous propensity.


Explain the rule of Novus Actus Interveniens (Isolated Torts). Also explain the exceptions to this rule.

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