This article has been written by Priyanshi Gupta pursuing a Diploma in Technology Law, Fintech Regulations and Technology Contracts course from LawSikho.

This article has been edited and published by Shashwat Kaushik.


As a fundamental component of the legal system, tort law attempts to rectify civil wrongs and offer compensation to those who have been harmed by the deeds or negligence of others. Navigating the complexity of tort litigation requires an awareness of the many defences accessible to defendants as these legal doctrines change. This article explores tort law, with a particular emphasis on the broad defences that people and organisations can use to avoid being held liable.

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This article offers a comprehensive analysis that goes beyond simple definitions in an attempt to disentangle the nuances surrounding general defences in torts. We want to offer a comprehensive understanding of how these defences operate and interact within the larger context of tort law by exploring important case studies, real-world scenarios, and developing trends.

What are general defences in torts

By pleading certain general defences, the defendant can escape accountability when the plaintiff files a lawsuit against them for a specific tort, even after establishing all the elements of that tort. It is pertinent to note that the effectiveness of these defences varies based on the facts of the case.

What are different types of general defences

Volenti non fit injuria

This means a willing person is not wrong. When a person consents to the infliction of harm upon himself, he cannot avail himself of any remedy for that because he willfully gave up his right. The consent of the person can be expressed or implied.

For example, if I go to a doctor to get a blood test done, then I cannot sue them for the pain suffered during the process because I consented to the test, so I have lost that right.

This is an example of express consent. If I have gone to watch a car racing match, then I am also agreeing to the risk of injury due to pure accidents that might arise during the game.

Another essential part of this is reasonable harm. For instance, in the first example, I can hold the doctor liable if he does something I have not consented to. Similarly, in the second example, if, during the car racing match, I find a deadly snake underneath my seat and it bites me, then I can sue the concerned authority.

Hall vs. Brooklands Auto Racing Club (1933)

In this case, the plaintiff went to see a motor car race that was held at Brooklands. During the race, a collision occurred between two cars; one of them hit the spectators, injuring the plaintiff. He sued the defendant company that owned the tracks. The courts held that since the risk was reasonably foreseeable, considering the dangerous nature of the sport, the defendant company is not liable.

Padmavathi and Ors. vs. Dugganaika and Ors. (1974)

In this case, two strangers voluntarily took a lift in a jeep. All of a sudden, due to some mechanical defect, the Jeep toppled and they suffered injuries. The driver and owner of the jeep were sued. The court held that since the plaintiff willingly took the lift and the accident was not reasonably foreseeable, the defendants were not liable.

Wooldridge vs. Sumner (1963)

In this case, a photographer who was employed at a horse show accused that a horse bolted towards him at a high pace and knocked him down. This happened because the rider lost control of the horse. He sued the show organisers for negligence. It should be noted that the photographer was standing in the ring where the horse show was going on and not behind spectator barriers.

The Court held the plaintiff liable in the above case because, in such athletic events, which are fast-paced, spectators are aware of the risk they expose themselves to.

The risk may arise due to an error of judgement or skill, and in this case, there was an error in the judgement of the athlete and the plaintiff also did not take the necessary precautions by stating within the ring and not behind the spectator barriers.

So, in what cases can the defendant be held liable? Let’s suppose that I go to watch a boxing match. If,  in between the matches, one of the boxers jumps out of the ring and punches me in the face, then if I, as a plaintiff, sue the boxer in his capacity or whatever association he is associated with, the defendant cannot plead volenti non fit injuria  because I consented to watch the match and the consequences suffered by me were not reasonably foreseeable; there should be free consent.

Lakshmi Rajan vs. Malar Hospital Ltd. and Anr. (1993)

In this case, the plaintiff visited the hospital due to the presence of a painful lump in her breast. It was completely unrelated to her uterus but when the surgery was performed, the doctor removed her uterus without any explanation.

The court held the hospital liable because the plaintiff gave her consent regarding the removal of the lump in her breast and not the removal of the uterus.

If consent is obtained by fraud

R vs. Williams (1998)

In this case, the defendant was a music teacher who raped his 16-year-old student by stating that the act would improve her voice. She gave her consent but did not understand the purpose of the sexual act. The court did not excuse the defendant because he obtained consent. After all, it was obtained fraudulently.

Knowledge of the risk does not equate to consent

Smith vs. Baker (1891)

In this case, the plaintiff used to work for a railroad corporation. His work included drilling holes in rocks next to a crane, operated by the corporation’s employees. Once, it so happened that the plaintiff was not warned before the operation of the crane and it flung stones over his head, thereby injuring him. The plaintiff was aware of the dangerous nature of his job. The plaintiff sued the defendant. The House of Lords held the defendant liable and did not grant the defence of volenti non fit injuria, as mere knowledge of the harm does not imply consent to that harm.

Consent obtained under compulsion

For instance, if I ask my servant to clean the roof despite the scorching heat when it is very much reasonably foreseeable that he might fall sick, otherwise he would be removed from service. If he falls sick, then volenti non fit injuria will not apply because he did not have a choice; he was under compulsion. That’s why he consented to such dangerous work, not out of his free will.

On the other hand, if an employee does his work carelessly or in a dangerous environment under no compulsion and incurs damages, he cannot sue the employer because the defence of volenti non fit injuria will be applicable.

The defence of volenti non fit injuria is not applicable in rescue cases.

Rescue cases

Haynes vs. Harwood

Haynes, the plaintiff, was a police officer on duty at a popular street police station. A lot of people, including children, visited him often. A delivery car with two horses that belonged to the defendants (Harwood) was abandoned on the same street without a driver. No one had intervened when the two youngsters had thrown a stone at one of the horses at this time.

The horses rested for a long time until they arrived in front of the police station, where the plaintiff was in the cellar. The driver had tied a chain to one of the van’s wheels, which then broke. Upon witnessing the situation, the policeman realised that women and children were in grave danger. In an attempt to save them, he sidestepped the horse and attempted to halt both of them.

The court did not grant the defence of volenti non fit injuria and Hardwood was held liable.

Wagner vs. International Railway Co. (1921)

In this case, a person travelling was thrown out of the running train due to the negligence of the railway company. His friend went to search for him when the train stopped, but he missed his footing and fell off a bridge, which resulted in injuries. He brought up a suit against the railway company. The court held the defendant liable, and the defence of volenti non fit injuria was not granted.

Plaintiff, the wrongdoer

In this general defence, it is stated that if the plaintiff himself is at fault( by committing an illegal act)  then he cannot file a suit against the defendant, even if he has incurred damages.

It is governed by the maxim- Ex turpi causa non oritur actio, which means  “from an immoral cause, no action arises.”

Hamps vs. Darby (1948)

The plaintiff’s pigeons were let out on the defendant’s pea crop. The defendant, after shouting at them, fetched a gun and shot at them, killing four and wounding one. The courts decided in favour of the plaintiff, and the defence of the plaintiff, the wrongdoer, was rejected.

Collins vs. Renison

The plaintiff climbed a ladder to put a notice on the defendant’s garden wall. On refusal to come down the ladder, he pushed the plaintiff off the ladder, which he pleaded, was in a very gentle way. However, the court gave its judgement in favour of the plaintiff.

Bird vs. Holbrook

In this case, the defendant set up spring guns in his garden without any notice or warning about the same. The plaintiff, who was a trespasser over the defendant’s land, got injured and brought up a suit against the defendant. The court granted the compensation claim by the plaintiff.

Pitts vs. Hunt (1991)

In this case, there was a driver and his friend on a motorcycle who had been drinking. The friend encouraged him to drive negligently and in a rash manner. They met with an accident where the driver died and his friend was severely injured. The court refused to grant damages to the pillion.

Inevitable accident

This general defence comes into play when there has been a genuine accident where all reasonable care was taken by the defendant, but still, the accident occurred and injury was caused to the plaintiff. The accident is not natural.

Holmes vs. Mather

In this case, the defendant’s servant was driving the horses on a public highway when suddenly a dog started barking, which alarmed the horses. Despite the reasonable care taken by the defendant’s servant, the horses could not be managed and thus they injured the plaintiff. The court ruled in favour of the defendant because it was an inevitable accident that led to injuring the plaintiff.

Stanley vs. Powell

Both the defendant and plaintiff were members of the shooting party and went for pheasant shooting. The defendant aimed at the pheasant, but the shot glanced off an oak tree and hit the plaintiff. The defendant was held not liable.

Brown vs. Kendall

In this case, the defendant’s and plaintiff’s dogs got into a fight. The plaintiff tried to intervene to stop the fight and consequently, he hit the plaintiff in the eye. The courts held the defence of an inevitable accident applicable and therefore acquitted the defendant.

Act of god

This general defence is similar to the earlier one of inevitable accidents, except for the fact that in this defence, the accident occurs due to natural forces and does not involve man-made situations. The occurrence must be extraordinary and not one that can be reasonably foreseeable. 

R.R.N. Ramalinga Nadar vs. V. Narayan Reddiar (1970)

In the landmark case of R.R.N. Ramalinga Nadar vs. V. Narayan Reddiar, the court grappled with the legal implications of a robbery incident that occurred during the transportation of goods in the defendant’s truck. The question before the court was whether the defendant could be held liable for the loss of the goods or whether the incident could be attributed to an act of God, absolving the defendant of any responsibility.

The facts of the case revealed that the defendant had undertaken the transportation of goods on behalf of the plaintiff. During the transportation, an unruly mob intercepted the truck and forcibly took away the goods. The plaintiff subsequently filed a suit against the defendant, seeking compensation for the loss suffered.

The defendant, in his defence, argued that the robbery was an act of God and hence, he could not be held liable for the loss. The defendant contended that the act of the unruly mob was an unforeseen and irresistible event beyond his control and, therefore, he should be exonerated from any liability.

The court, after carefully considering the arguments presented by both parties, held that the robbery did not constitute an act of God. The court reasoned that while the act of the unruly mob was undoubtedly unforeseen, it was not irresistible. The court noted that the defendant could have taken reasonable steps to protect the goods, such as hiring security personnel or choosing a safer route for transportation. The court further observed that the defendant had failed to exercise due care and diligence in ensuring the safety of the goods entrusted to him.

Consequently, the court held the defendant liable for the loss of the goods and ordered him to pay compensation to the plaintiff. This decision reinforced the principle that carriers are generally held responsible for the safety of goods entrusted to them during transportation and cannot escape liability by simply attributing the loss to an act of God. The court’s ruling serves as a reminder to carriers of the importance of taking adequate measures to safeguard the goods they transport and to ensure that they are not exposed to unnecessary risks.

Nichols vs. Marsland

The defendant made some artificial lakes on his land by damming some natural streams. The embankments of the lake gave way when there was an extraordinary rainfall, which was an extraordinary occurrence. The courts held the defendant not liable because the occurrence was indeed extraordinary and thus the defence of the act of God was not granted.

Kallulal and Anr. vs. Hemchand and Ors. (1957)

In this case, the wall of the defendant’s building collapsed in the rainy season, which resulted in the deaths of the plaintiff’s two children. The Madhya Pradesh High Court did not grant the defence of the act of God because rainfall of this magnitude in context was not something extraordinary.

The defendant argued that the collapse of the wall was an act of God and that he could not be held liable for the deaths of the children. However, the court rejected this defence, holding that the rainfall in question was not so extraordinary as to be considered an act of God. The court noted that the area in which the incident occurred was prone to heavy rainfall during the monsoon season and that the defendant should have taken steps to prevent the collapse of the wall.

The court’s decision in this case has had a significant impact on the law of torts in India. It established the principle that an act of God is not a defence to liability if the defendant could have reasonably foreseen the event and taken steps to prevent it. This principle has been applied in numerous subsequent cases involving claims for damages caused by natural disasters and other acts of nature.

The Kallulal case is also notable for its discussion of the concept of negligence. The court held that the defendant was negligent in failing to take steps to prevent the collapse of the wall. This finding was based on the fact that the defendant knew that the wall was in a state of disrepair and that it was likely to collapse if it was not repaired.

The court’s decision in the Kallulal case has been criticised by some scholars, who argue that it is too strict and that it places an unfair burden on landowners. However, the decision has also been praised by others, who argue that it is necessary to protect the public from harm caused by dangerous structures.

The Kallulal case remains a leading precedent in the law of torts in India and continues to be cited in cases involving claims for damages caused by acts of God and other natural disasters.

Right to private defence

It is permissible to use reasonable force to protect one’s person or property. Essential conditions for this defence include the use of reasonable force, and the threat for which force is being used must be immediate and reasonably foreseeable; that is, the aggressor must be capable of causing the harm. It must be necessary to use force, and any immediate help must be unavailable, to exercise the right to private defence. Some prominent cases that give useful insights into this defence are as follows-

Bird vs. Holbrook

In this case, the defendant set up spring guns in his garden without any notice or warning about the same. The plaintiff, who was a trespasser over the defendant’s land, got injured and brought up a suit against the defendant. The defendant pleaded that the traps were set up for the protection of property, but the defence of private defence was not granted by the courts because it was essential to post a warning or notice, and without either, it seems more probable that the defendant wanted to scare people off rather than protect his property.


Mistakes can be classified as mistakes of law or mistakes of fact, that is, not knowing the correct facts or misunderstanding them. Neither of them qualifies as a legitimate defence under the law of torts.

Consolidated Co. vs. Curtis

In this case, an auctioneer auctions certain goods, honestly believing them to be his customers’, and pays the sale proceeds to the customer; however, the goods did not belong to the customer, and the true owner sued the auctioneer. The court found the auctioneer to be liable.

However, there are certain exceptions to this rule. One such example is the tort of malicious prosecution, where if the defendant succeeds in proving an honest but mistaken belief, he is not held liable. Even in the tort of vicarious liability, if the mistake of a servant is outside the course of employment, then the master is not held liable. In deceit, honest belief is a defence. 


This defence lays down certain conditions where intentional damage to an innocent person is also permissible by law, provided that the action is taken to prevent larger damage.

Kirk vs. Gregory (1876)

In this case, a person dies, and his sister-in-law takes off the jewellery and places it in another room, thinking of it as a safer place. The person’s executors sued her for trespass. The courts held the sister-in-law liable because the interference was not reasonably necessary and the defence of necessity was not granted.

Carter vs. Thomas (1935)

In this case, the defendant went to the plaintiff’s house to extinguish the fire when the firemen had already arrived. The plaintiff sued the defendant for trespass. The court did not grant the defence of necessity in this case because the firemen had already arrived  and the defendant was held liable.

Cope vs. Sharpe

In this case, the defendant was sued by the plaintiff for trespass because he entered the plaintiff’s property to prevent fire from spreading to the adjoining land, over which his master held shooting rights. The courts did not hold the defendant liable and granted the defence of necessity as the action was done reasonably.

Statutory authority

If a tort is committed during an act authorised by the legislature or done on its orders, then the defence of statutory authority is granted against obvious as well as consequential injury. This defence can be asserted against both obvious injuries, which are directly and reasonably foreseeable consequences of the authorised act, and consequential injuries, which are indirect or unintended consequences.

The rationale behind this defence is that individuals should not be held liable for actions taken in compliance with the law. The legislative authorization is deemed to provide a sufficient justification or excuse for the actions, even if they would otherwise constitute a tort. For example, if a police officer arrests an individual pursuant to a valid warrant, the officer is not liable for false arrest, even if the warrant was later found to be invalid.

However, the defence of statutory authority is not absolute. It may be defeated if the individual exercising the statutory authority exceeds the scope of their authority, acts in a negligent or reckless manner, or fails to comply with any applicable procedures or regulations. Furthermore, the defence is not available if the authorised act is inherently dangerous or if it violates a fundamental right.

Vaughan vs. The Taff Vale Railway Company (1860)

In this case, an engine belonging to the defendant’s railway company emitted sparks, which led to the plaintiff’s woods catching fire. The courts did not hold the defendant liable because reasonable care was taken by the company and the act was done in compliance with the statute, thus the defence of statutory authority was given.

Hammersmith Rail Co. vs. Brand (1868)

In this case, the value of the plaintiff’s land depreciated due to noise and smoke caused by the running of trains for the defendant’s company. The court granted the defence of statutory authority in this case.

Smith vs. London and South Western Railway Co. (1903)

In this case, the plaintiff’s cottage, which was located about 200 yards away from the railway line, caught fire. He brought up a suit against the railway company for their negligent actions. It was established that the workers of the railway company left trimmings of grass and hedges near the railway line, due to which, when the engine emitted a spark, the material caught fire, and due to strong winds, the fire reached the plaintiff’s cottage. The courts held the defendant’s company liable and did not grant the defences of statutory authority.


These are the general defences that can be granted by courts of law to serve justice and ensure that neither party is falsely implicated in any case. By ensuring that culpability is fairly distributed and that the results of judicial proceedings are reasonable and equitable, these defences are essential to maintaining the proper balance in the justice system. But it’s crucial to understand that defences in tort law are only applicable in certain situations, and that each case’s particular circumstances and prior rulings must be carefully considered for them to be successful.



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