This article is part of our Medical Negligence Series.

Negligence as a tort

Definition of Negligence

The jurisprudential concept of negligence defies any precise definition. Eminent jurists and leading judgments have assigned various meanings to negligence. The concept as has been acceptable to Indian jurisprudential thought is well-stated in the Law of Torts, Ratanlal & Dhirajlal (Twenty-fourth Edition 2002, edited by Justice G.P. Singh). It is stated (at p.441-442) ___

“Negligence is the breach of a duty caused by the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do.

Actionable negligence consists in the neglect of the use of ordinary care or skill towards a person to whom the defendant owes the duty of observing ordinary care and skill, by which neglect the plaintiff has suffered injury to his person or property.

The definition involves three constituents of negligence:

(1) A legal duty to exercise due care on the part of the party complained of towards the party complaining the former’s conduct within the scope of the duty;

(2) breach of the said duty; and

(3) consequential damage. Cause of action for negligence arises only when damage occurs; for, damage is a necessary ingredient of this tort.”

Meaning of Negligence

According to Charlesworth & Percy on Negligence (Tenth Edition, 2001), in current forensic speech, negligence has three meanings. They are:

(i) a state of mind, in which it is opposed to intention;

(ii) careless conduct; and

(iii) the breach of duty to take care that is imposed by either common or statute law.

All three meanings are applicable in different circumstances but any one of them does not necessarily exclude the other meanings.

The essential Component of Negligence

The essential components of negligence, as recognized, are three: “duty”, “breach” and “resulting damage“, that is to say: –

1. the existence of a duty to take care, which is owed by the defendant to the complainant;

2. the failure to attain that standard of care, prescribed by the law, thereby committing a breach of such duty; and

3. damage, which is both causally connected with such breach and recognized by the law, has been suffered by the complainant.

If the claimant satisfies the court on the evidence that these three ingredients are made out, the defendant should be held liable in negligence.

Negligence as a tort and as a crime

The term ‘negligence’ is used for the purpose of fastening the defendant with liability under the Civil Law and, at times, under the Criminal Law.

  • it is the amount of damages incurred which is determinative of the extent of liability in tort; but in criminal law it is not the amount of damages but the amount and degree of negligence that is determinative of liability.
  • To fasten liability in Criminal Law, the degree of negligence has to be higher than that of negligence enough to fasten liability for damages in Civil Law.
  • The essential ingredient of mens rea cannot be excluded from consideration when the charge in a criminal court consists of criminal negligence.

Moral culpability of recklessness

The moral culpability of recklessness is not located in a desire to cause harm. It resides in the proximity of the reckless state of mind to the state of mind present when there is an intention to cause harm. There is, in other words, a disregard for the possible consequences. The consequences entailed in the risk may not be wanted, and indeed the actor may hope that they do not occur, but this hope nevertheless fails to inhibit the taking of the risk. Certain types of violation, called optimizing violations, may be motivated by thrill-seeking. These are clearly reckless.

In order to hold the existence of criminal rashness or criminal negligence it shall have to be found out that the rashness was of such a degree as to amount to taking a hazard knowing that the hazard was of such a degree that injury was most likely imminent. The element of criminality is introduced by the accused having run the risk of doing such an act with recklessness and indifference to the consequences.

English and Indian court on the distinction of criminal and civil negligence

Lord Atkin in his speech in Andrews v. Director of Public Prosecutions, [1937] A.C. 576, stated,

“Simple lack of care such as will constitute civil liability is not enough; for purposes of the criminal law there are degrees of negligence; and a very high degree of negligence is required to be proved before the felony is established.”

Thus, a clear distinction exists between “simple lack of care” incurring civil liability and “very high degree of negligence” which is required in criminal cases. Lord Porter said in his speech in the same case ___ “A higher degree of negligence has always been demanded in order to establish a criminal offence than is sufficient to create civil liability. (Charlesworth & Percy, ibid, Para 1.13)

The fore-quoted statement of law in Andrews has been noted with approval by this Court in Syad Akbar v. State of Karnataka (1980) 1 SCC 30. The Supreme Court has dealt with and pointed out with reasons the distinction between negligence in civil law and in criminal law.

Their Lordships have opined that there is a marked difference as to the effect of evidence, viz. the proof, in civil and criminal proceedings.

In civil proceedings, a mere preponderance of probability is sufficient, and the defendant is not necessarily entitled to the benefit of every reasonable doubt; but in criminal proceedings, the persuasion of guilt must amount to such a moral certainty as convinces the mind of the Court, as a reasonable man, beyond all reasonable doubt. Where negligence is an essential ingredient of the offence, the negligence to be established by the prosecution must be culpable or gross and not the negligence merely based upon an error of judgment.

Law laid down by Straight, J. in the case Reg v. Idu Beg (1881) 3 All. 776, has been held good in cases and noticed in Bhalchandra Waman Pathe v. State of Maharashtra 1968 Mh.L.J. 423  a three-Judge Bench decision of this Court.

It has been held that while negligence is an omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided upon those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do; criminal negligence is the gross and culpable neglect or failure to exercise that reasonable and proper care and precaution to guard against injury either to the public generally or to an individual in particular, which having regard to all the circumstances out of which the charge has arisen, it was the imperative duty of the accused person to have adopted.

the factor of grossness or degree does assume significance while drawing distinction in negligence actionable in tort and negligence punishable as a crime. To be latter, the negligence has to be gross or of a very high degree.


Jacob Mathew v. State of Punjab; (2005) 6 SCC 1