Accident as defence under Law of torts: Meaning, Principles and Cases

Author-Shruti Mayur, Amity University


Tort is a wrongful act for which the defendant gives the compensation to the individual who have suffered harm or injury due to his/her actions. According to Salmond, “Tort is a civil wrong for which the remedy is common law action for unliquidated damages and which is not exclusively the breach of contract or the breach of a trust or other merely equitable obligation.” The word ‘tort’ derives from the Latin word ‘Tortum’ which means to twist. It is a violation of right in rem leading to legal injury and redressable by unliquidated damages.

If a plaintiff sues a defendant for a specific wrongful act, providing the existence of all the essentials of that act as a tort, the defendant will be held liable. However, there are certain situations where the defendant can escape from his liability by taking the defences available. There are many defences in the law of tort which are categorized further in two parts i.e. General defences and Specific defences. Some of the general defences available for the tort are:

  1. Volenti non fit injuria
  2. Plaintiff, the wrongdoer
  3. Inevitable accident
  4. Act of God
  5. Private Defence
  6. Mistake
  7. Necessity
  8. Statutory Authority

This article deals with the topic of an accident as defence under the law of tort in detail.

Keywords:  Tort law, Defences, Unavoidable, Inevitable accident, Liability. 

Meaning and Definition

An accident can be defined as an unforeseen incident, often sudden and unintentional event, that results in harm or injury to people property and the environment and may entitle the affected party to legal compensation, even if caused by carelessness lack of knowledge or a combination of factors.

When the accident is an unforeseeable and unavoidable incident that results in harm then it is known as inevitable accident in the law of tort and used as defence by the defendant for which he is not held liable. It is a specific defence strategy used to completely absolve the defendant of responsibility for the accident’s consequences. Sir Federick Pollock defined accident as an inevitable accident “not avoidable by any such precautions as a reasonable man, doing such an act then there, could be expected to take.”

 Types of an accident:

The very first thought that comes to mind after hearing the word “accident” is a road accident. But there are many types of accidents such as:

  1. Motor vehicle accident
  2. Mechanical failure
  3. Pedestrian injury accident
  4. Workplace accident
  5. Fire safety accidents
  6. Collisions
  7. Falling
  8. Medical malpractice
  9. Repetitive stress injuries
  10. Slip and fall injuries etc.

Nature of an accident:

Causes: –

   Accidents can be caused by various factors such as:

  1. Human error – It is the leading cause of accidents, often stemming from factors like negligence, recklessness, distracted behaviours and a lack of situational awareness.
  2. Mechanical failure – Such as malfunctions, defects, or improper maintenance in vehicles, machinery and other equipment is another significant contributor to accidents.
  3. Environmental factors- It includes natural disasters, adverse weather conditions and unsafe environments which can significantly increase the risk of accidents.
  4. Unforeseen events- Events such as sudden medical emergencies or unpredictable animal behaviour can sometimes trigger accidents even when beyond human control.

Foreseeability: –

  1. Foreseeable- These accidents are potentially foreseeable and preventable with the exercise of proper care and the implementation of appropriate safety measures.
  2. Unforeseeable- These accidents constitute truly unforeseeable events which are impossible to anticipate under the unique circumstances.

Intentionality: –

  1. Unintentional- These events occur in an unintentional manner, devoid of any premeditation or intent to inflict harm.
  2. Rarely intentional-In rare instances, accidents may stem from deliberate actions, often falling within the purview of criminal law rather than tort law.

Outcome: –

  1. Property damage- This involves damage to vehicles, buildings, or other belongings.
  2. Personal injury- This involves injuries ranging from minor to life threatening or fatal consequences.
  3. Emotional distress- Accidents can cause psychological trauma and emotional suffering.
  4. Financial loss-This can include medical bills, lost wages, and other costs associated with the accident.

Legal Implications: –

Depending upon the nature of the accident, various legal considerations may arise, including: –

  1. Tort law- This legal domain focuses on resolving claims for compensation arising from injuries or losses caused by the negligence or misconduct of others
  2. Criminal law- In certain cases, criminal charges may be brought if the accident involved intentional acts or gross negligence.

For the defendant to use the accident as defence i.e., inevitable accident which is general defence in the law of tort, it is necessary to show the nature of the accident. Inevitable accident means the unavoidable accident that is harm or injury caused due to the unforeseeable circumstances and was not preventable.

For example-

  1. If a man was driving a car and he was all in his senses and took all due care, but suddenly due to mechanical part failure his car loses his balance and hits a passer-by. In this case, a man would not be held liable as he took all precautions from his side. The accident was unavoidable.
  2. Sam was driving a car with all the reasonable care from his part. Suddenly due to heavy rain and storm the road collapsed and Sam’s car hit many pedestrians. Here also Sam would not be held liable as it was completely out of his hand.

Types of Inevitable Accident:

Inevitable accident may be classified into two categories: –

  1. Accidents which are caused by the elementary forces of nature apart from human agency or other causes. The term “Act of God” is used to describe such acts.
  2. Accidents which are entirely or partially the outcome of human agency, whether by the acts of commission or omission, misdeeds, or inactions or through any other causes unrelated to the action of natural agencies.

Principles/Essential of Inevitable accident:

  1. Unforeseeable- The accident must be impossible to predict or anticipate, beyond human control.
  2. Unavoidable- The accident could not have been prevented even with the reasonable care and safety measures. The defendant can argue that he exercised all reasonable care to avoid the accident, regardless of its ultimate outcome.
  3. No alternative action- The defendant, acting reasonably, had no alternative course of action available that could have prevented the accident.

Exceptions to Inevitable Accident:

The defence of inevitable accident is inapplicable to: –

  1. Intentional torts – The wrongful acts such as assault, battery trespass are committed deliberately. In these acts intent is a key element, so the concept of an unavoidable accident or inevitable accident does not apply and the plaintiff bears burden of proof.
  2. Strict/Absolute Liability- The defence of inevitable accident is not applicable as the liability arises regardless of negligence, carelessness, intent to do the act, knowledge of the act and so on due to the inherently risky nature of the activity. Ex- keeping dangerous animals, engaging in abnormally dangerous activities like storing explosives or operating nuclear power plant. This doctrine was established in the case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India.
  3. Negligence- The defence of inevitable accident is inadmissible in negligence proceedings as the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff.

 Landmark cases:

In the case, Holmes v. Mather, a runway horse incident on a public road caused an injury. The defendant’s servant, who was leading the horses, lost control of them when a dog barked. Despite the servant’s best efforts, the horses bolted and struck the plaintiff, causing serious harm. So, the court ruled that the accident was unavoidable or inevitable and the defendant was not held liable.

In the case, Stanley v. Powell, the plaintiff and defendant were shooting members who went for a pheasant shooting party. The defendant aimed the gun to shoot at a pheasant, but the bullet was ricocheted by an oak tree and struck the plaintiff, who got injured. The plaintiff filed the case wherein the defendant argued and took the defence of inevitable accident. The court agreed, finding the defendant could not have predicted the bullets ricochet and the plaintiff’s injury.

In the case, Brown v. Kendall, both Brown, the plaintiff and Kendall, the defendant owned dogs that got into a fight. Kendall tried to break them up by swinging a large stick. Brown who had been keeping his distance, walked behind Kendall as the dogs moved away. Unfortunately, Kendall didn’t see brown and accidentally struck him in the eye with the stick during his swing, causing serious injuries. Brown sued Kendall for assault and battery to which court held that it was purely an inevitable accident and dismissed the case.

In the case of Fardon v. Harcourt-Rivington, the defendant left a dog unattended inside a parked car. Despite the dog’s initial quiet demeanor, it became agitated and ultimately shattered a car window. Unfortunately, a passerby, the plaintiff, was struck in the eye by a shard of glass from the broken window and subsequently filed a lawsuit against the defendant seeking compensation for the injury.

Lord Dunedin, however, ruled in favor of the defendant, finding them not liable for accident. His reasoning centered on the concept of remoteness and foreseeability. He stated that while individuals hold a responsibility to guard against reasonably anticipated dangers, they are not obligated to foresee and prevent entirely improbable occurrences. In this specific case, the court deemed the dog’s actions and the resulting injury to be so unlikely that they did not constitute a foreseeable danger. He further emphasized this distinction by declaring, “People must guard against reasonable probabilities, but they are not bound against fantastic probabilities.”

In the case, Padmavati v. Dugganaika, two strangers accepted a ride in a Jeep. Tragically, during the journey, a critical malfunction occurred. A bolt securing the right front wheel to the axle became dislodged. this critical failure caused the jeep to loose control and overturn, resulting in severe injuries to both passengers, with one sadly succumbing to their wounds.

The plaintiff’s, likely relatives of the deceased and injured passengers, filed a lawsuit against the driver and owner of the jeep, seeking compensation for the injuries incurred. However, the court ultimately ruled in favor of the defendants. The court’s reasoning centered on the nature of the accident, which they classified as a sheer accident. In simpler terms, the court determined that the event was entirely unforeseen and unavoidable. Critically, the defect that caused the accident, the loose bolt, was not reasonably detectable through standard maintenance procedures.

Therefore, the court concluded that the driver and owner exhibited no negligence. Since they could not have foreseen or prevented the failure that caused the accident, they were not held liable for the unfortunate outcome.


In tort law, accident can be used as defence i.e. inevitable accident by proving the nature of an accident. The defendant can escape from his liability if the nature of the accident caused by him was unforeseeable, unintentional that could not be avoided despite all reasonable care by the defendant.

Thus, the inevitable accident is significant defence in the law of tort which involves accidents that could not have been prevented by the parties although there was an exercise of reasonable care, caution, and skill. It is also known as unavoidable accident defence.


  1. Books / Commentaries / Journals Referred
    1. R. K Bangia, Law of Torts (Allahabad Law Agency 2023)
  2. Online Articles / Sources Referred
  1. Cases Referred
    1. Holmes v. Mather, (1875) LR 10
    2. Stanley v. Powell, 1 QB 86 (1891
    3. Brown v. Kendall,60 Mass.292 (1850)
    4. Fardon v. Harcourt-Rivington, (1932) 146 Lt 391
    5. Padmavati v. Dugganaika (1975)

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