Fully Understanding Duty In Negligence Cases

Webster’s defines “duty” as “obligatory tasks, conduct, service, or functions that arise from one’s position,” as in he has a “duty to support his family.” There are some other definitions as well, like a sense of duty propelled him to the battlefield, but none of these other meanings come as close to the term’s specific meaning in a negligence case.

Like many American laws, what would become the duty of reasonable care in New York car crashes began in England, and its roots go back to two key cases.


Vaughan v. Menlove (1837)

In Perry Mason terms, Vaughan would be The Case of the Haphazard Hay Stacker, and would probably have a guest star like Robert Redford (1965’s The Case of the Treacherous Toupee) or Alan Hale Jr. and DeForest Kelley (1961’s The Case of the Unwelcome Bride).

The world was a much different place 180 years ago. Many English people lived in small country cottages, flanked by very large haystacks. These “hay ricks” were incredibly flammable, and a single spark could ignite the entire stack in just a few moments. So, most English hay ricks were built in such a way to minimize this risk, and also included chimneys to dissipate any potential fire.

Mr. Menlove built a hay rick which had a chimney but was not fire-proofed in the traditional way. Moreover, he put the haystack almost directly against his neighbor’s cottage. Over the course of about a month, several neighbors warned him about the danger, but in classic English style, Mr. Menlove simply responded that “he would chance it.” Soon thereafter, the sun’s heat caused the haystack to spontaneously combust, and Mr. Vaughan’s cottage and property were completely destroyed in the fire.

No one had ever filed a negligence claim before, so the judges weren’t sure how to handle the case. Mr. Menlove argued that he should not be liable for damages, because he did what he thought was best. But the court responded that such a conclusion “would leave so vague a line as to afford no rule at all.” Instead, “we ought rather to adhere to the rule which requires in all cases a regard to caution such as a man of ordinary prudence would observe,” the judges opined.

However, over a hundred years would pass before this rule was fully articulated.


Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932)

In the 1800s, when most people lived in rural villages without manufactured products or motor vehicles, negligence cases were few and far between. But after the Industrial Revolution around the early 1900s, people moved to cities and began driving motor vehicles to work in factories. As still happens today, these social changes eventually led to legal changes as well.

Enter The Case of the Moldy Mollusk. Ms. Donoghue was at a Scottish cafe enjoying a ginger beer over ice cream (which sounds rather nasty but is apparently quite popular in England), when to her horror, she found a dead and partially decomposed snail in the bottom of the bottle. She filed a claim for damages against the beer bottler, making the totally new allegation that Mr. Stevenson had a duty of care, which in this case meant that he must “provide a system of working his business which would not allow snails to get into his ginger-beer bottles, and that it was also his duty to provide an efficient system of inspection of the bottles before the ginger-beer was filled into them.” Mr. Stevenson insisted that he was only liable for gross negligence and not an unintentional accident.

Under the rule in Vaughan, Mr. Stevenson probably would not have to pay damages, because he certainly did not intend for the dead snail to enter the beer bottle and he did not ignore danger warnings.

But times had changed, so the English court decided it must expand on, and solidify, the Vaughan rule. Writing for the court, Lord James Atkin came up with the neighbor principle: “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbor.”

In modern New York car crash cases, the “neighbor principle” (later known as the duty of care) essentially means that drivers must obey all the rules of the road and, as my grandfather said, look out “for the other fella.” If drivers breach that duty of care, perhaps by speeding or by not paying attention to driving, and that misconduct causes a car crash, the tortfeasor (negligent driver) is liable for any damages.