This article is written by Neha Dahiya, a law student at Dr. B.R. Ambedkar National Law University, Sonipat. This article includes the facts, issues, the decision held, and tort law principles used in the top 10 tort law cases. 

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


Tort is basically a civil wrong, other than a breach of contract, whose remedy includes unliquidated damages for the injury caused. It is an act or omission that causes harm to another person, breaching his legal rights, and giving rise to liability. The primary aim of the tort law is to remedy the harm caused by way of compensation and deter others from doing the same. The injured party may bring a civil suit against the defendant to obtain an injunction or recover damages in the form of monetary compensation. The common forms of torts include trespass, assault, battery, negligence, nuisance, defamation, etc. The following are some prominent case laws that have shaped the development of tort law. 

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Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932)

Principle used: Doctrine of negligence and Neighbour principle

Facts of the case

On 26 August 1928, the appellant, Mrs. Mary M’Alister, or Donoghue, consumed the contents of a ginger beer bottle bought by her friend. The bottle was bought from Wellmeadow Café and manufactured by the respondent. The respondent, once she had consumed a major portion of the beer, poured the rest of the contents into a glass. It was then discovered that the beer had decomposed remains of a snail in it. It remained undetected on the account of the beer bottle being opaque. Consequently, the appellant suffered from shock and a serious case of gastroenteritis. Hence, the appellant filed a case against the respondent, David Stevenson, who was the manufacturer of ginger beer bottles. Initially, she filed a case for the breach of warranty of a contract. But this contention was rejected as she was not a party to any contract with the manufacturer. Thus, an appeal was filed to the House of Lords. She claimed damages for the injuries sustained by her. 

Issues raised in the case

  1. Whether the manufacturer had any responsibility towards the appellant in the absence of any contractual relationship between the two?
  2. It was an established fact until then that in the absence of any prior contract, the manufacturer owed no duty of care towards the consumer except in a few cases. The first exception was when the product was inherently dangerous and the manufacturer failed to warn the consumer. The second case was when the product was dangerous as a result of any defect and the defect was concealed by the manufacturer from the consumer, which was considered a case of fraud. Thus, the second issue was whether the ginger beer could fall into these categories so as to give the appellant a cause of action.

Judgement of the Court

  • The judgement was delivered in favour of the appellant. It was delivered by a majority of 3-2 with the dissenting judgement given by Lord Buckmaster and Lord Tomlin. Jurisprudentially, this was a landmark judgement that introduced three new principles related to the matter at hand.       
  • To begin with, negligence was established as a tort, whose breach could invite legal action. It was laid down that if the plaintiff has suffered injuries or loss of property owing to the respondent’s negligence to take due care, the plaintiff is justified in bringing a civil action against the respondent. The respondent in such cases is liable to pay the damages with due accordance given to the nature and extent of injuries or loss suffered. Previously, such an action could only be taken when there was a prior contractual agreement between the parties. The present case was a stark shift from this position as the appellant was allowed to extract damages in absence of any such contract, making the manufacturer liable for the injuries sustained as a result of consumption of his product. 
  • The second principle laid down the idea that the manufacturers could be held liable for the injuries caused by their products. It was observed that the manufacturers had a duty of care towards the consumers who used their end products. Reasonable care must be taken by the manufacturers and those who breached this condition should be held liable for serving defective products to the consumers which might be harmful to them. 

The neighbour principle 

The famous ‘Neighbour Principle’ was also devised in Donoghue v. Stevenson. It was with this principal’s aid that the appellant was compensated for the injuries she sustained, despite being a third party to the original contract. Under the principle, the boundaries of the tort of negligence were expanded beyond the tortfeasor and the immediate party. Its ambit was widened to include all those people who might be affected by the negligence. In this case, Donoghue was not a party to the contract and had received the bottle as a gift from her friend. This impeded her claim for damages. But as per this principle, she was designated the title of a ‘neighbour’ who was affected by the negligence committed and hence was entitled to the damages. Lord Atkin defined the term ‘neighbour’ in legal parlance as anyone who would be closely and directly affected by one’s actions and proper care must be taken to avoid causing any injury or loss. 

Rylands v. Fletcher (1868)

 Principle used: Strict liability 

Facts of the case

In this case, the defendants, who were the mill owners in the coal mining area of Lancashire, decided to construct a reservoir on their land. When the reservoir was constructed and water was filled, the water broke through the filled-in shaft of an abandoned coal mine. It flooded the connected passageways and the plaintiff’s active mine nearby was destroyed. When the matter went to the trial court, the court exonerated the defendants on the ground that they were unaware of the abandoned mine shaft while constructing the reservoir. Hence, they could not be said to be negligent. 

Later on, the plaintiffs filed an appeal and the Exchequer Chamber overruled the trial court’s decree, imposing strict liability on the defendants. But the problem was that the case could be fitted into any of the existing torts in order to punish the defendants. There was no trespass as the flooding was not direct. Nor was it a nuisance as there was nothing offensive or annoying here that was recurring.

Finally, the matter reached the House of Lords when the defendants appealed. 

Issues raised in the case

  1. Whether the defendants can be held liable for indirectly flooding the plaintiff’s active mines, without actually knowing it?
  2. If the defendants are liable, then for which tort could they be prosecuted?

Judgement of the Court

The House of Lords affirmed the judgement of the court of the Exchequer Chamber and held the defendants to be liable. The court also established the doctrine of ‘strict liability’, under which the defendants were held liable. 

The doctrine of strict liability 

The requirements for the application of the doctrine of strict liability, as laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher, are as follows:

  1. The defendant must have brought something on his land- This requirement mandates that in order to be liable under strict liability, there must be something that is brought on the land from outside. It should not be something that grows or occurs naturally on the land. It must be something that is artificially accumulated by the defendant. In the present case, it was the large quantity of water that was artificially accumulated by the defendants in the reservoir on their land. 
  2. Non-natural use of land- The second requirement is that it must involve a non-natural use of the land. In this case, using the land for storing large quantities of water in a reservoir amounted to a non-natural use. 
  3. Likely to do mischief- The thing that is brought on the land from outside for the non-natural use of the land must be likely to do mischief on escape. In this case, the large quantity of water had the potential to cause a lot of destruction, if it escaped by any means. 
  4. It must escape- The substance brought on land likely to do mischief must escape from the land. Here, the water from the reservoir on the defendant’s land escaped and flooded the plaintiff’s mines.
  5. Foreseeability- The harm caused by the escape of that dangerous substance must be foreseeable. 

Defences to the doctrine of strict liability 

Subsequent to the development of this doctrine, a number of defences have also been developed to the rule of strict liability. Some of them are the following:

  1. Consent- In case it is found the claimant had given express or implied consent to the presence of that dangerous substance likely to escape and cause mischief, it is implied that there was no negligence on the part of the defendant and he would not be held liable. 
  2. Act of third party- If the escape can be attributed to the act or interference of a third party, the defendant shall not be held liable. 
  3. Statutory authority- A person can escape strict liability if a statute requires a person or body to carry out a particular activity. 
  4. Act of god-  An act of god is an unnatural event that could not be predicted by human foresight like strong earthquakes, exceptionally heavy rain, tsunami, etc. 
  5. Claimant’s fault- If the escape can be attributed to the claimant’s fault, the defendant shall not be held liable. Additionally, there may be contributory negligence on the part of the claimant. 

Gloucester Grammar School case (1410)

Principle used: Damnum sine injuria 

Facts of the case

The defendant, in this case, was a school teacher at the Gloucester Grammar School. Due to some reason, he decided to quit his job and start his own school. He opened his own school in the vicinity of the Gloucester Grammar School and kept the fee at 12 pence to entice students to come to his school at such a low fee. The fee charged by his previous school was 40 pence. He was also very popular among the students. Because of these reasons, many students left Gloucester and joined his school. This caused a lot of monetary damage to Gloucester Grammar School. Hence, the owner of Gloucester Grammar School filed a suit against the defendant for the recovery of the financial loss he had to incur because of him. He alleged that the defendant opened his school with a malicious motive to cause damage to the Gloucester Grammar School. He sought compensation for the damages. 

Issues involved in the case

  1. Does the plaintiff have the right to seek compensation for the financial losses incurred due to the opening of a competitive business in his vicinity?
  2. Does the case fall under ‘damnum sine injuria’
  3. Is the defendant actually liable?

Judgement of the Court 

The Court held that the defendant was not liable to compensate the plaintiff for the damage caused and the Gloucester Grammar School had no cause against the defendant. In this particular case, even though the plaintiff had suffered pecuniary losses, there was no injury caused to his legal rights. The plaintiff contended that the defendant’s motive for opening a new school with less fee was to cause harm to the plaintiff and was morally wrong. But legally, the defendant did nothing wrong. Not all moral, social, and religious wrongs are covered under legal wrongs. There was no tort that was committed. The defendant had the right to pursue any profession and he did not injure the legal rights of the defendant in doing the same. The children were at liberty to choose which school they wanted to go to. They chose the defendant’s school because of his sincerity towards his work which made him famous among his pupils and the affordable fee. The court cannot compel the defendant to close down his school or pay compensation to the plaintiff. Thus, no civil wrong was committed. The case falls under ‘damnum sine injuria’, i.e. there may be financial damage caused to the plaintiff but there was no legal injury. Therefore, the defendant was not liable.  

Vaughan v. Taff Vale Railway Company (1858) 

Principle used: Statutory exemption from the doctrine of negligence 

Facts of the case

In this case, the plaintiff was the owner of a wood or plantation adjoining the embankment of the railway. On 14 March 1856, the plaintiff’s woods were found burnt. The cause of the fire was attributed to the sparks from the defendant’s locomotive engines while they were in the normal course of their working. It was also shown that on several occasions previously as well the wood had been set on fire and the Company had even paid the damages. The plaintiff again sought compensation for the burnt wood from the defendant and hence filed this suit. The defendant claimed that they had taken all the necessary precautions that were practicable to prevent such an accident and make the locomotives safe like a cap had been put on its chimney, the ashpan had been secured and it was operated at the slowest pace. Even the banks of the railway were covered with inflammable grass. The wood was also full of small dry branches that are combustible in nature.  

Issue involved in the case

  1. Can the defendant be held liable for negligence despite taking all the necessary precautions?

Judgement of the Court

In the first instance, the company was held liable for negligence. It was observed that the plaintiff had suffered losses because of the fire caused by the sparks from the locomotives. The defence that the plaintiff had allowed his wood to become vulnerable to catching fire, neglecting to clear away the dry grass and small branches was not given to the defendants. 

However, this decision was overruled. 

It was finally held that it was the statutory authority that had authorised the defendant to carry out their operations. Thus, they had done nothing against the statute to be held liable. Furthermore, all the necessary precautions were taken, therefore, the defendant cannot be held liable for negligence as the act was authorised by the statute. 

Kasturi Ralia Ram v. The State of Uttar Pradesh (1964)

Principle used: Rex non potest peccare  

Facts of the case

In this case, the plaintiff, Kasturi Ralia Ram was a partner in a firm dealing with the sale of jewellery, based in Amritsar. He had arrived in Meerut with the aim of selling some gold and silver. In Meerut, he was taken into custody by three police officers who suspected him of having possession of the stolen property. He was searched and taken to the Kotwali Police Station. Around 103 tolas 6 mashas and 1 ratti of gold and 2 maunds and 6 ½ seers of silver were confiscated from him. They were kept in the police malkhana. After some time when Kasturi Lal was released on bail, the silver was returned to him but not the gold. He made several requests and demands for his gold but the police officers did not return it. Hence, he filed a suit either for the recovery of gold or the amount equal to the value of the gold. The respondent claimed a head constable of the malkahana named Mohammad Amir had misappropriated the gold and fled away to Pakistan. The police had tried to trace him but were unsuccessful. Thus, the respondents claimed that it was not their fault. 

Issues involved in the case

  1. Can the police be held guilty of negligence for not taking proper care of Kasturi Ram’s gold?
  2. Is the respondent liable to compensate Kasturi Ram for his loss due to the negligence of the public servants appointed by the State?
  3. Can the defence of discharging sovereign functions be given to the respondent against the charge of negligence?

Judgement of the Court

The Supreme  Court of India held that the defendant was not liable to compensate the plaintiff. It granted the defence of functions discharged under sovereign power to the respondent. It was observed that the powers to arrest, search and seize property falls under the sovereign powers conferred on the specified officers by the statute. These powers fall under the category of sovereign powers and hence provide immunity to the officers in question. Even though the employees of the State had committed a negligent act during the course of employment, they could claim immunity under sovereign power. The decision was based on the maxim ‘rex non-potest peccare’ which translates to ‘the king can do no wrong’. 

Bhim Singh v. The State of Jammu and Kashmir (1985)

Principle used: Injuria sine damnum and false imprisonment


The petitioner, in this case, Shri Bhim Singh was a sitting Member of the Legislative Assembly in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. An FIR was registered against him under Section 153-A of the Ranbir Penal Code, 1989 at the Police Station Pacca Danga. The ground of the FIR was an inflammatory speech delivered at a public meeting. He was arrested and detained by the police. Also, he was deliberately prevented from attending the session of the Assembly. As a result of a habeas corpus writ filed by his wife, Bhim Singh was released on bail. Subsequently, there was a voting session in the Assembly that he was not allowed to attend and hence, he could not vote. Even though the person whom he wanted to vote for won, he claimed that his right to vote was infringed. 

Issues involved in the case

  1. Whether the arrest and detention of Bhim Singh was illegal and amounted to false imprisonment?
  2. Whether the detention amounts to an infringement of the petitioner’s constitutional rights?
  3. Whether the petitioner is entitled to exemplary compensation?

Judgement of the Court

  • The Supreme Court of India concluded that the petitioner was falsely imprisoned. In fact, the remand orders were obtained from the Executive Magistrate of First Class and the Sub-Judge without producing the petitioner before them. The police officers acted deliberately and had mala fide intentions. 
  • It was held that the false imprisonment and non-production of the petitioner before the magistrate were tantamount to infringement of the petitioner’s constitutional rights. He was completely deprived of personal liberty, he had the knowledge of the restraint, there was the presence of malicious intent on part of the police officers and it was an unlawful act. All the ingredients of false imprisonment were satisfied in the present case. Also, not producing him in front of the magistrate violated Section 56 and Section 76 of The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.
  • The main principle applied here was that of ‘injuria sine damnum’, i.e. injury without damage. In this case, Bhim Singh was prevented from attending the Assembly session and casting his vote. Even though there was no damage caused as the candidate in whose favour he wanted to vote had won, there was an infringement of his legal right. Thus, without any actual harm suffered by the petitioner, he could bring an action just because his constitutional right had been violated.
  • The Court also recognised that when a person is maliciously arrested and imprisoned, it is a complete invasion of his constitutional and legal rights. Restraining his personal liberty violated Articles 20 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. Justice is not served by merely setting that person free. Thus, it is completely justified to award monetary compensation in such cases. As a result, the State of Jammu and Kashmir was directed by the honourable Supreme Court to pay a sum of Rs. 50,000 to the petitioner Bhim Singh as monetary compensation from the date of the judgement within two months. 

Ashby v. White (1703)

Principle used: Injuria sine damnum 

Facts of the case

This is an eighteenth-century voting rights case, also known as the Aylesbury election case. In this case, the plaintiff Mr. Ashby was denied to vote by the returning officer Mr. White, in the parliamentary elections. He unlawfully deprived him of his right to vote on the ground that he was not a permanent resident. Even though the candidate in whose favour he wanted to cast his vote won, Mr. Ashby claimed that his legal right to vote was infringed. This case sparked a national controversy and even invited a parliamentary debate. The defendant claimed that there was no actual loss incurred by Mr. Ashby by not voting. The plaintiff sought compensation for the violation of his legal right.

Issue involved in the case

  1. Whether the plaintiff can seek compensation for the violation of his legal right without any actual damage caused?

Judgement of the Court

The Court passed the decree in favour of the plaintiff. It applied the principle of ‘injuria sine damnum’, which translates to ‘injury without damage’. It implies that the law recognises only legal injuries and not mere damages. Whenever an action causes a legal injury, i.e. someone’s legal right is violated, the victim deserves compensation, even when there is no actual damage caused. Thus, in the present case, even when the candidate to whom the plaintiff wanted to cast his vote had won, his legal right to vote was violated when he was wrongfully denied from casting his vote. Therefore, he deserves compensation. Chief Justice Holt said, “Any injury imports harm even if it does not cost the party one farthing. In the case of damage, not only pecuniary but also injury, the damage is imported if a person is hampered in his or her rights.”

Hall v. Brooklands auto racing club (1933)

Principle used: Volenti non fit injuria 

 Facts of the case

This case is associated with an accident related to the racing track for motor cars. The track was oval in shape and circumference of approximately two miles or more. It also had an over 100 feet wide long straight stretch called the finishing straight. It was bounded by a cement kerb on its outer side. The spectators were allowed to watch the race from a safe distance behind the railings behind the cement kerb, which was 4 feet 6 inches high. However, many people preferred to stand alone and outside the railing. During the race, two cars were fast approaching a sharp bend to the left. In the competition to go ahead, one of the cars touched the offside of another car. Because of this, the car went flying in the air over the curb and fell into the railing. The accident caused the death of spectators and caused injuries to several others. One of the injured spectators brought a suit of negligence against the owners of the racing track as they had invited people to watch the race under such unsafe conditions. 

Issues involved in the case

  1. Were the owners of the racing track negligent in ensuring the safety of the spectators?
  2. Can the defendants be held liable for the damage caused to the spectators due to the accident?

Judgement of the Court

The Court held that it is clearly the responsibility of the defendants to make the track safe for the spectators from all the foreseeable dangers. However, they were not responsible for the dangers that could not be reasonably predicted or to which danger the spectator had given his consent, as it is innate in the nature of the activity. For example, while buying tickets for a cricket or football match, the spectator consents to the inherent risk in the activity like getting hit by the ball. In this case, the area for the spectators was completely secured and safe but they are likely to get in danger when going too close to the track, i.e. near the railings.   Additionally, as no such accident had ever occurred in the past, the accident was not foreseeable. Therefore, the defendants were not liable because of the following two primary reasons:

  1. The accident was not foreseeable.
  2. The spectators had given their implied consent to the dangers inherent to the nature of the activity while buying tickets.

Dr. Ram Baj Singh v. Babulal (1981)

Principle used: Nuisance 

Facts of the case

This case was between a medical practitioner and the defendant owning a brick grinding machine. The plaintiff has built a consulting chamber before the brick grinding machine was erected by the defendants. The plaintiff claimed that the brick grinding machine was generating dust which polluted the environment causing inconvenience to the plaintiff and his patients who came to his chamber. It was also alleged that the said machine was installed by the defendants without any licence or permission from the Municipal Board. On the other hand, the defendant claimed that the bricks were moistened before grinding and hence caused no pollution. The machine did not even produce any noise and thus, was not a source of any public or private nuisance. 

Issues involved in the case

  1. Was the defendant liable for nuisance?

Judgement of the Court

The Allahabad High Court held the defendant liable for nuisance. It laid down two important pillars of nuisance. 

Tort of nuisance 

The two pillars of nuisance, as established by the High Court in Ram Raj Singh v. Babu Lal, are the following:

  1. Special damage- The Court held that the dust emanating from the crushing of the bricks was a public hazard. It was bound to cause injury to public health. The dust was in sufficient quantity, as could be found from the thin red coating visible in the clothes of persons visiting the chamber. Thus, the brick grinding machine was causing special damage to the plaintiff.
  2. Substantial injury- Injury is said to be substantial when assessed from the point of view of a reasonable person belonging to society. The susceptibilities of a hypersensitive person are not taken into consideration. In the present case, there was a substantial injury caused to the plaintiff and his visiting patients due to the dust from the grinding machine. 

As the above two requisites were fulfilled in the present case and any act that could reasonably cause injury, discomfort, or annoyance to a person can fall under private nuisance, the defendant was held liable on the charge of private nuisance.

Ram Ghulam and Anr. v. The State of Uttar Pradesh (1949) 

Principle used: Defence of sovereign power to the tort of negligence 

Facts of the case

The plaintiff’s ornaments were stolen in the present case. They were ultimately recovered from another house. Under the powers conferred by the Code of Criminal Procedure, the police searched and seized those ornaments from that place. Subsequently, they were kept in the Collectorate Malkhana, from where they were again stolen. The plaintiff applied to the Magistrate for the restoration of his ornaments but was unsuccessful. It was dismissed on the ground that the government was not liable to compensate. The plaintiff alleged that his ornaments were stolen due to the negligence of the State’s servants and hence the state was liable to compensate him.

Issues raised in the case

  1. Was the government liable as a bailee of the plaintiff’s ornaments that were stolen due to its servants’ negligence?
  2. Was the government liable to indemnify or compensate the plaintiff for his goods?

Judgement of the Court

  • The Allahabad High Court held that the relationship between the government and the plaintiff was not that of the bailee and bailor. Such a relationship arises from contractual obligations and no such contract was entered into by the two. 
  • The Court applied the maxim ‘respondeat superior’ to hold that the State was not responsible to compensate the plaintiff for his stolen goods. According to this, the master, i.e. the government was not responsible for the acts of its servant, when such acts are done while discharging the duty imposed by law. The police were acting under the law while confiscating the ornaments and hence were not liable when in the course of the act the ornaments were stolen. 


 Tort law does not have an established statute. It has emerged from the decisions given in different case laws. The judgments given formulate new principles and modify the already existing principles. The frequently used principle of strict liability has originated from the case of Rylands v. Fletcher and the Neighbour principle has also originated from Donoghue v. Stevenson. Thus, even today it is dynamic and contains the scope of expansion as new cases come forward every day. 


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