Torts > Torts Keyed to Epstein > The Negligence Issue
Vaughan v. Menlove
Citation. 132 Eng. Rep. 490 (C.P. 1837).
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Brief Fact Summary.
Defendant’s rick of hay burst into flames after several repeated warnings of the possibility of fire. Plaintiff’s neighboring cottages were consumed in the fire. Plaintiff sued Defendant for gross negligence.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
In assessing Defendant’s liability under a theory of gross negligence, Defendant is bound to proceed with such reasonable caution as a prudent man would have exercised under similar circumstances.
Plaintiff owned two cottages. Defendant was Plaintiff’s neighbor. Defendant placed a haystack, or rick, on his property, but near its boundaries. The placement of the hay gave rise to discussions regarding the probability of a fire. In the period of five weeks, Defendant was warned of the possibility of fire. On one occasion, he said, “he would chance it.” Defendant made an aperture or chimney through the rick, which burst into flames from the spontaneous heating of its materials. The flames consumed Defendant’s barn and staples and Plaintiff’s cottages, which were entirely destroyed. The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff. Defendant appealed.
In a claim of gross negligence, is Defendant bound to proceed with such reasonable caution as a prudent man would have exercised under the circumstances?
Yes. Judgment for Plaintiff affirmed.
* (Talfourd Serjt. and Whately) A man must use his property as not to injure that of others. The standard of conduct is that of a man of ordinary prudence.
(R.V. Richards) There was no duty on Defendant to be responsible for the exercise of any given degree of prudence. Defendant had the right to place his rick of hay as close to the boundary of his property as he pleased. Defendant is only required to act according to his best judgment. What is and what is not gross negligence ought to be estimated by the faculties of the individual. If a jury deems Defendant to have subjectively believed the rick to be safe, then Defendant should not be liable under a theory of gross negligence.
Concurrence. (C.J. Tindal) On concurrence there is a rule of law, which says you must so enjoy your property as not to injure that of another. In this case, and according to that rule, Defendant is liable for the consequences of his own neglect. Although the Defendant did not himself light the fire, he is as much the cause of it as if he had himself put a candle to the rick. We ought to adhere to the rule, which requires the same caution as a man of ordinary prudence would observe.
* (J.Park) It was proper to leave the question to the jury, of whether Defendant acted as any man of ordinary prudence would in regards to the caution and if so, Defendant would therefore be not liable under gross negligence.
* (J.Vaughan) Everyone takes upon himself the duty of so dealing with his own property as not to injure property of others. The conduct of a prudent man has always been the criterion for the jury.
In this case, the court adopts the objective prudent, cautious man standard. The court paid special attention to the fact that Defendant stated he would chance it when observers warned Defendant of the possibility of fire. In all claims of gross negligence, a Defendant must use that standard of care used by a reasonable, cautious, prudent man to avoid liability.