11 Ex Ch 781 (1856)

An important opinion on the law of negligence.

The case involved claims against defendants who were the water works for Birmingham city.  Defendants installed water pipes to withstand freezing conditions ordinarily to be expected in that city.  The claims arose following the malfunctioning of the pipes caused by unusually severe winter conditions.

In determining whether the defendants were negligent, the court first defined negligence as follows:

“Negligence is the 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.  The defendants might have been liable for negligence, if, unintentionally, they omitted to do that which a reasonable person would have done, or did that which a person taking reasonable precautions would not have done.”

Applying the foregoing principles, the court held that defendants were not negligent when “their precautions proved insufficient against the effects of the extreme severity of the frost of 1855, which penetrated to a greater depth than any which ordinarily occurs south of the polar regions.  Such a state of circumstances constitutes a contingency against which no reasonable man can provide.”

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