How does the reasonable person standard account for variations in human intelligence? Plaintiff’s property caught on fire due to the spontaneous combustion of hay stacked by the defendant nearby. The facts showed that plaintiff had explicitly warned defendant of the risk of fire; defendant responded by saying that “he would chance it.” Defendant insisted, throughout trial, that his stack did not carry a risk of igniting. However, the potential for hay stacks to spontaneously combust may have been common knowledge at the time.
132 Eng. Rep. 490
Jan. 23, 1837.
[S. C. 4 Scott, 244; 3 Hodges, 51; 6 L.J. C.P. 92; 1 Jur. 215: at Nisi Prius, 7 Car. & P. 525.]
An action lies against a party for so negligently constructing a hay-rick on the extremity of his land, that in consequence of its spontaneous ignition, his neighbour's house is burnt down.—And upon pleas of not guilty, and that there was no negligence, held, that it was properly left to the jury to say whether the Defendant had been guilty of gross negligence, viewing his conduct with reference to the caution that a prudent man would have observed.
The declaration stated, that before and at the time of the grievance and injury, hereinafter mentioned, certain premises, to wit, two cottages with the appurtenances situate in the county of Salop, were respectively in the respective possessions and occupations of certain persons as tenants thereof to the Plaintiff, to wit, one thereof in the possession and occupation of one Thomas Ruscoe as tenant thereof to the Plaintiff, the reversion of and in the same with the appurtenances then belonging to the Plaintiff, and the other thereof in the possession and occupation of one Thomas Bickley as tenant thereof to the Plaintiff, the reversion of and in the same with the appurtenances then belonging to the Plaintiff: that the Defendant was then possessed of a certain close near to the said cottages, and of certain buildings of wood and thatch, [132 Eng. Rep. 491] also near to the said cottages; and that the Defendant was then also possessed of a certain rick or stack of hay before then heaped, stacked, or put together, and then standing, and being in and upon the said close of the Defendant. That on the 1st of August 1835, while the said cottages so were in the occupation of the said tenants, and while the reversion thereof respectively so belonged to the Plaintiff' as aforesaid, the said rick or stack of hay of the Defendant was liable and likely to ignite, take fire, and break out into a flame, and there had appeared, and were just grounds to apprehend and believe that the same would ignite, take fire, and break out into a flame; and by reason of such liability, and of the state and condition of the said rick or stack of hay, the same then was and continued dangerous to the said cottages; of which said several pre [3 Bing (N. C.) 469] mises the Defendant then had notice: yet the Defendant well knowing the premises, but not regarding his duty in that behalf, on, &c., and from thence until and upon a certain day, to wit, on, &c. wrongfully negligently, and improperly, kept and continued the said rick or stack of hay, so likely and liable to ignite and take fire, and in a state and condition dangerous to the said cottages, although he could, and might, and ought to have remove and altered the same, so as to prevent the same from being and continuing so dangerous as aforesaid; and by reason thereof the said cottages for a long time, to wit, during all the time aforesaid, were in great danger of being consumed by fire. That by reason of the premises, and of the carelessness, negligence, and improper conduct of the Defendant, in so keeping and continuing the said rick or stack, in a state or condition so dangerous as aforesaid, and so liable and likely to ignite and take fire and break out into flame, on, &c., and while the said cottages so were occupied as aforesaid, and the reversion thereof respectively so belonged to the Plaintiff; the said rick or stack of hay of the Defendant, standing in the close of the Defendant, and near the said c:ottages, did ignite, take fire, and break out into flame, and by fire and flame thence issuing and arising, the said standing of the Defendant so being of wood and thatch as aforesaid, and so being near to the said rick or stack as aforesaid, were set on fire; and thereby and by reason of the carelessness, negligence, and improper conduct of the Defendant, in so keeping and continuing the said rick or stack in such condition as aforesaid, fire and flame so, occasioned as aforesaid by the igniting and breaking out into flame, of the said rick or stack, was thereupon then communicated unto the said cottages in which the Plaintiff was interested as aforesaid, which were thereby then respectively set on fire, and then, to wit on, &c., by reason of such [3 Bing (N. C.) 470] carelessness, negligence, and improper conduct of the Defendent in so continuing the said rick or stack in such a dangerous condition as aforesaid, in manner aforesaid, were consumed, damaged, and wholly destroyed, the cottages being of great value, to wit, the value of 5001. And by means of the premises, the Plaintiff was greatly and permanently injured in his said reversionary estate and interest of and in each of them; to the Plaintiff's damage of 5001.
The Defendant pleaded, first, not guilty. Secondly, that the said rick or stack of hay was not likely to ignite, take fire, and break out into flame; nor was the same by reason of such liability, and of the state or condition of the said rick and stack of hay, dangerous to the said cottages; nor had the Defendant notice of the said premises, in manner and form as the Plaintiff had in and by his declaration in that behalf alleged. Thirdly, that the Defendant did not, well knowing the premises in the declaration in that behalf mentioned, wrongfully, negligently, or improperly, keep or continue the said rick or stack of hay, in a state and condition dangerous to the said cottages. Fourthly, that the said rick or stack of hay, did not by reason of the carelessness, negligence and improper conduct of the Defendant in that behalf, ignite, take fire, and break out in flame. And fifthly, that the said cottages were not consumed, damaged, and destroyed by reason of the carelessness, negligence, and improper conduct of the Defendant.
At the trial it appeared that the rick in question had been made by the Defendant near the boundary of his own premises; that the hay was in such and state when put together, as to give rise to discussions on the probability of fire: that though there were conflicting opinions on the subject, yetduring a period of five weeks, the Defendant was repeatedly warned of his [3 Bing (N. C.) 471]peril; that his stock was insured; and that upon one Occasion, being advised to take the rick down to avoid all danger, he said “he would chance it.” He made an aperture or chimney through the rick; but in spite, or perhaps in consequence of this precaution, the rick at length burst into flames from the spontaneous heating of its materials; the flames communicated to [132 Eng. Rep. 492] the Defendant's barn and stables, and thence to the Plaintiff's cottages, which were entirely destroyed.
Patteson J. before whom the cause was tried, told the jury that the question for them to consider, was, whether the fire had been occasioned by gross negligence on the part of the Defendant; adding, that he was bound to proceed with such reasonable caution as a prudent man would have exercised under such circumstances.
A verdict having been found for the Plaintiff, a rule “Rule nisi” is a court order that has no force until a particular condition has been met. In Vaughan, the order for a new trial was conditioned upon a “showing of cause”; an explanation by the moving party which would justify the need for a new trial. Cause was shown by the defendant’s argument that he was entitled to a bona fide standard. [#23456]nisi for a new trial was obtained, on the ground that the jury should have been directed to consider, not, whether the Defendant had been guilty of gross negligence with reference to the standard of ordinary prudence, a standard too uncertain to afford any criterion; but whether he had acted bona fide to the best of his judgment; if he had, he ought not to be responsible for the misfortune of not possessing the highest order of intelligence. The action under such circumstances, was of the first impression.
Talfourd Serjt. and Whately, shewed cause.
The pleas having expressly raised issues on the negligence of the Defendant, the learned Judge could not do otherwise than leave that question to the jury. The declaration alleges that the Defendant knew of the dangerous state of the rick, and yet negligently and improperly allowed it to stand. The plea of not guilty, therefore, puts in issue the scienter, it being of the sub [Bing (N. C.) 472] stance of the issue; Thomas v. Morgan (2 Cr. M. & U. 496). And the action, though new in specie, is founded on a principle fully established, that a man must so use his own property as not to injure that of others. On the same circuit a defendant was sued a few years ago, for burning weeds so near the extremity of his own land as to set fire to and destroy his neighbors’ wood. The plaintiff recovered damages, and no motion was made to set aside the verdict. Then, there were no means of estimating the defendant's negligence, except by taking as a standard, the conduct of a man of ordinary prudence: that has been the rule always laid clown, and there is no other that would not be open to much greater uncertainties.
R V. Richards, in support of the rule.
First, there was no duty imposed on the Defendant, as there is on carriers or other bailees, under an implied contract, to be responsible for the exercise of any given degree of prudence: the Defendant had a right to place his stack as near to the extremity of his own land as he pleased; Wyatt v. Harrison (3 B. & Adol. 871): under that right, and subject to no contract, he can only be called on to act bona fide to the best of his judgment: if he has clone that, it is a contradiction in terms, to inquire whether or not he has been guilty of gross negligence. At all events what would have been gross negligence ought to be estimated by the faculties of the individual, and not by those of other men. The measure of prudence varies so with the varying faculties of men, that it is impossible to say what is gross negligence with reference to the standard of what is called ordinary prudence. In Crook v. Jadis (5 B. & Adol. 910), Patteson J. says, "I never could understand [Bing (N. C.) 473]what is meant by parties taking a bill under circumstances which ought to have excited the suspicion of a prudent man:" and Taunton J., “I cannot estimate the degree of care which a prudent man should take.”
In Foster v. Pearson too, (1 C. M. & H. 855) it appears that the rule which called on persons taking negotiable instruments to act with the circumspection of a prudent man, has at length been abandoned. There, the judge left it to the jury to say whether the holder of bills took them with due care and caution in the ordinary course of business; and upon a motion to set aside a verdict for the plaintiff, the Court said: “Of the mode in which the question was left, the defendant has certainly no right to complain; but, if the verdict had been in his favour, it would have become necessary to consider whether the learned Judge was correct in adopting the rule first laid down by the Court of Common Pleas, in the case of Snow v. Peacock (3 Bingh. 406), and which was founded upon the dicta, rather than the decision, of the judges of the King's Bench in the case of Gill v. Cubitt (5 D. & R. 324. 3 B. & C. 466); more especially since the opinion of the latter court has been so strongly intimated in the late cases of Crook v. Jadis (3 N. & M. 257) and Backhouse v. Harrison (ibid. 188). The rule of law was long considered as being firmly established, that the holder of bills of exchange indorsed in blank or other negotiable securities transferable by delivery, could give a title which he himself did not possess to a bona fide holder for value; and it may well be questioned whether it has been wisely departed from in the case to which reference has been made, and other subsequent cases in which care and caution in the taker of [132 Eng. Rep. 493] such securities has been treated as essential to the validity of his title, besides, and independently of, honesty of purpose.”
[Bing (N. C.) 474] TINDAL C.J.
I agree that this is a case primæ impressionis; but I feel no difficulty in applying to it the principles of law as laid down in other cases of a similar kind. Undoubtedly this is not a case of contract, such as abailment or the like where the bailee is responsible in consequence of the remuneration he is to receive: but there is a rule of law which says you must so enjoy your own property as not to injure that of another; and according to that rule the Defendant is liable for the consequence of his own neglect: and though the Defendant did not himself light the fire, yet mediately, he is as much the cause of it as if he had himself put a candle to the rick ; for it is well known that hay will ferment and take fire if it be not carefully stacked. It has been decided that if an occupier burns weeds so near the boundary of his own land that damage ensues to the property of his neighbour, he is liable to an action for the amount of injury done, unless the accident were occasioned by a sudden blast which he could not forsee: Turbervill v. Stamp (1 Salk. 13). But put the case of a chemist making experiments with ingredients, singly innocent, but when combined, liable to ignite; if he leaves them together, and injury is t hereby occasioned to the property of his neighbour, can anyone doubt that an action on the case would lie?
It is contended, however, that the learned Judge was wrong in leaving this to the jury as a case of gross negligence, and that the question of negligence was so mixed up with reference to what would be the conduct of a man of ordinary prudence that the jury might have thought the latter the rule by which they were to decide; that such a rule would he too uncertain to act upon; and that the question ought tohave been whether the Defendant had acted honestly and bona fide to the best of his own judgment. That, [Bing (N. C.) 475]however, would leave so vague a line as to afford no rule at all, the degree of judgment belonging to each individual being infinitely various: and though it has been urged that the care which a prudent man would take, is not an intelligible proposition as a rule of law, yet such has always been the rule adopted in cases of bailment, as laid down in Coggs. v. Bernard (2 Ld. Raym. 909). Though in some cases a greater degree of care is exacted than in others, yet in “the second sort of bailment, viz. commodatum or lending gratis, the borrower is bound to the strictest care and diligence to keep the goods so as to restore them hack again to the lender; because the bailee has a benefit by the use of them, so as if the bailee he guilty of the least neglect he will be answerable; as if a man should lend another a horse to go westward, or for a month; if the bailee put this horse in his stable, and he were stolen from thence, the bailee shall not be answerable for him: but if he or his servant leave the house or stable doors open and the thieves take the opportunity of that, and steal the horse, he will be chargeable, because the neglect gave the thieves the occasion to steal the horse.” The care taken by a prudent man has always been the rule laid down; and as to the supposed difficulty of applying it, a jury has always been able to say, whether, taking that rule as their guide, there has been negligence on the occasion in question.
Instead, therefore, of saying that the liability for negligence should be co-extensive with the judgment of each individual, which would be as variable as the length of the foot of each individual, 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. [Bing (N. C.) 476] That was in substance the criterion presented to the jury in this case, and therefore the present rule must be discharged.
I entirely concur in what has fallen from his Lordship. Although the facts in this case are new in specie, they fall within a principle long established, that a man must so use his own property as not to injure that of others. In Tubervill v. Stamp (1 Salk. 13), which was “an action on the case upon the custom of the realm, quare negligenter custodivit ignem suum in clauso suo, ita quod per flammas blade Quer. in quodam clauso ipsius Quer. combusta fuerunt; after verdict pro Quer. it was objected that the custom extended only to fire in his house, or curtilage (like goods of guests) which were in his power: Non alloc. For the fire in his field was his fire as well as that in his house; he made it, and must see that it did no harm, and must answer the damage if he did. Every man must use his own so as not to hurt another: but if a sudden storm had risen which he could not stop, it was matter of evidence, and he should have shewn it. And Holt, and Rokesby, and Eyre were against the [132 Eng. Rep.494] opinion of Turton, who went upon the difference between fire in a house which was in a man's custody and power, and fire in a field which was not properly so; and that it would discourage husbandry, it being usual for farmers to burn stubble, &c. But the Plaintiff had judgment according to the opinion of the other three." That case, in its principles, applies closely to the present.
As to the direction of the learned Judge, it was perfectly correct. Under the circumstances of the case it was proper to leave it to the jury whether with reference to the caution which would have been observed by [Bing (N. C.) 477]a man of ordinary prudence, the Defendant had not been guilty of gross negligence. After he had been warned repeatedly during five weeks as to the consequences likely to happen, there is no colour for altering the verdict, unless it were to increase the damages.
GASELEE J. concurred in discharging the rule.
The principle on which this action proceeds, is by no means new. It has been urged that the Defendant in such a case takes no duty on himself; but I do not agree in that position: every one takes upon himself the duty of so dealing with his own property as not to injure the property of others. It was, if any thing, too favourable to the Defendant to leave it to the jury whether he had been guilty of gross negligence; for when the Defendant upon being warned as to the consequences likely to ensue from the condition of the rick, said, "he would chance it," it was manifest he adverted to his interest in the insurance office. The conduct of a prudent man has always been the criterion for the jury in such cases: but it is by no means confined to them. In insurance cases, where a captain has sold his vessel after damage too extensive for repairs, the question has always been, whether he had pursued the course which a prudent man would have pursued under the same circumstance. Here, there was not a single witness whose testimony did not go to establish gross negligence in the Defendant. He had repeated warnings of what was likely to occur, and the whole calamity was occasioned by his procrastination.