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Tort - Novus actus interveniens

Updated on August 29, 2017

Novus actus interveniens in tort is an intervening act that causes a break in the chain of causation and negates the defendant’s liability. A defendant is liable in tort when his action or inactions (omissions) cause some form of physical injury, psychiatric illness, or some type of damage to property. The injury, illness, or damage is normally the direct consequence of the defendant’s action or inactions (omissions).

Causation is a chain i.e. an action or an inaction (omission) that leads to a result, often dire but nonetheless foreseeable and the defendant is often liable unless there is a break in the chain and a new, often independent act, causes a break in the chain.

In the Oropesa (1943) there was a collision at sea between two ships. The Oropesa collided with another vessel, the Manchester Regiment and the vessel, the Manchester Regiment sustained serious damage. The captain of the Manchester Regiment ordered the crew to abandon ship. The captain having transferred 50 of his crew members to the Oropesa continued to try and safe the ship and ordered that a lifeboat be lowered.

He and 17 other crew members got on the lifeboat and headed for the Oropesa in an attempt to persuade the captain of the Oropesa to tow the ship to the nearest post. The sea was rough and the lifeboat capsized. 7 of the crew members drowned.

At the trial, the defendants (the Oropesa) argued that they were not responsible for the lives that were lost because the actions of the captain had broken the chain of causation. The court held that the captain’s actions were both natural and foreseeable and the seamen’s deaths were the direct consequence of the collision that was caused by the negligence of the Oropesa and therefore the defendants were liable. The captain’s actions did not break the chain of causation.

In Robinson v The Post Office (1974) the plaintiff was an employee of the post office and while climbing down a ladder the plaintiff slipped and fell, sustaining injuries on his shin. The accident was caused by smidges of oil on the rungs of the ladder. Approximately 8 hours later the plaintiff went to his doctor for a tetanus jab and the doctor did not follow the prescribed procedure.

He was required to inject the plaintiff with a small dose and wait for half an hour to determine if there were any adverse effects to the injection prior to administering the full dosage. The doctor waited for about a minute and administered the full dosage. The injection had an adverse effect on the plaintiff and the plaintiff suffered brain damage. The plaintiff sued.

The question before the court was whether the injury was too remote or if it was the natural consequence of the defendants’ negligence. The plaintiff was successful. The court held that it was foreseeable that the plaintiff would go to a doctor for treatment after the first injury, any normal person would, and therefore the consequent injury that the plaintiff suffered was a direct result of the defendants’ negligence.

The fact that the chances were slim that that the plaintiff would suffer from brain damage did not break the chain of causation and the thin skill rule applied i.e. you take your victim as you find them.

As for whether the intervening act of the doctor (novus actus interveniens) caused a break in the chain of causation, the court held that it did not. It was a likely consequence of the defendants’ negligence that the plaintiff would seek some form or type of medical treatment.

In Reeves v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (1999) the police held in custody a prisoner who had attempted suicide on several occasions. The prisoner however did not suffer from a psychological illness and nor did he suffer from depression or schizophrenia. From all accounts, he was a person of sound mind but did have suicidal tendencies or leaned towards taking his own life.

The police left the hatch of his cell door open and the prisoner committed suicide. An action was brought against the police for negligence and the police contended that the deceased was a person of sound mind or the argument was that people of sound mind do not commit suicide and therefore the police were not required to take additional precautions other that what they normally would.

The court held that there was a duty of care on the grounds that despite the prisoner being of sound mind, he displayed suicidal tendencies and had attempted suicide on several previous occasions. Therefore, given the opportunity the chances were high that the prisoner might attempt to take his own life.

It was further contended that the act of suicide was an intervening act i.e. when a person of sound mind takes his own life, it is a deliberate act and therefore the act had caused a break in the chain of causation. The courts decided that suicide is not an intervening act if it was the very act that the duty sort to prevent.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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