General defenses in tort law are legal arguments and principles that defendants can use to avoid liability for their alleged wrongful actions or omissions. These defenses provide a means for defendants to challenge the plaintiff’s claim and demonstrate that they should not be held legally responsible for any harm or injury suffered by the plaintiff. General defenses are crucial elements of tort law as they help balance the interests of plaintiffs seeking compensation and defendants seeking to protect their rights.
In tort law, plaintiffs typically bring claims seeking remedies such as monetary compensation (damages) for injuries, harm, or losses they have suffered due to the defendant’s actions. However, defendants can raise various general defenses to counter these claims. These defenses are based on legal principles, statutory provisions, and established precedents that allow defendants to assert that, under specific circumstances, they should not be held liable for the alleged wrongdoing
1. Volenti Non Fit Injuria (Consent):
Volenti non fit injuria means “to one who is willing, no wrong is done.”
This defense arises when the plaintiff voluntarily accepts and consents to the risk associated with an activity, and as a result, they cannot later claim damages for any harm suffered.
Consent can be express or implied, and it must be freely given.
In Hall v. Brooklands Auto Racing Club, the plaintiff was injured while watching a car race. The court held that the plaintiff knowingly undertook the risk of watching the race, and thus, the defendant was not liable
2. Inevitable Accident:
Inevitable accident refers to an unforeseeable event that occurs despite the exercise of reasonable care, and the defendant is not liable for any resulting harm.
The defendant must demonstrate that they took all necessary precautions to prevent the accident.
In Stanley v. Powell, the defendant and the plaintiff went pheasant shooting. A bullet fired by the defendant hit the plaintiff due to an unforeseeable deflection from an oak tree. The court considered it an inevitable accident, and the defendant was not held liable.
3. Act of God:
Act of God is a defense when harm results from natural forces beyond human control.
The event must be extraordinary and unforeseeable.
In Nichols v. Marsland, the defendant created an artificial lake on his land, and heavy rainfall, the heaviest in human memory, caused the lake’s embankments to collapse. This was considered an Act of God, and the defendant was not held liable.
4. Private Defense:
Private defense allows an individual to use reasonable force to protect themselves or their property from an imminent threat.
Force must be proportionate to the threat, and it can only be used for self-defense or property protection.
In Bird v. Holbrook, the defendant set up spring guns in his garden without notice. The plaintiff, a trespasser, was injured by one of these guns. The court held that the defendant’s actions were not justified, and the plaintiff was entitled to compensation.
Mistake may be used as a defense when a defendant acts under a genuine but mistaken belief.
Mistake can be either a mistake of law or a mistake of fact.
In Morrison v. Ritchie & Co., the defendant published a statement about the plaintiff giving birth to twins in good faith, but the information was incorrect. The court held the defendant liable for defamation, and the defense of mistake was not accepted.
Necessity arises when an act is done intentionally to prevent greater harm, even if it causes harm to an innocent party.
It should be distinguished from private defense and inevitable accident.
In Leigh v. Gladstone, forcible feeding of a hunger-striking person in prison was deemed a necessity and served as a defense against the tort of battery.
7 Contributory negligence
Contributory negligence is a legal concept in tort law that addresses situations where the plaintiff’s own negligence contributes to their injuries or damages. In such cases, the plaintiff’s recovery of damages may be reduced or barred altogether based on the extent of their own negligence. This doctrine is often applied in cases where both the plaintiff and the defendant are found to have acted negligently, and it aims to allocate responsibility between the parties.