The Origins Of Duty, Part I

Many Louisiana statutes and court procedures originally came from French law, but others came from the common law (judge-made law) in England. Duty in a negligence case is one such concept. Depending on the relationship between the parties, the defendant has a duty of care with respect to the plaintiff. In most cases, this duty involves reasonable care.

When an English court considered Vaughn v. Menlove in 1837, the concept of “duty” existed only in commercial law, because the parties to a contract had a duty to perform their obligations if at all possible. The facts of this case motivated the court to expand this concept to everyday life, at least in some instances.

Facts and Procedural History

Back in the early 1830s, most people in the English countryside lived in thatched-roof cottages. These structures were notoriously fire prone, and a single spark could essentially create a firestorm in only a few seconds. As a result, most people spaced out their houses from one another and built specialized chimneys that kept the fire from spreading so quickly.

Mr. Menlove, however, completely eschewed these precautions. He built his house right on the property line and almost directly adjacent to Mr. Vaughan’s cottage. Mr. Menlove also refused to build a chimney or take other precautions. When people repeatedly warned him about the dangers over a period of about five weeks, he brushed off their advice and, in a classic English way, that “he would chance it.” Almost inevitably, his hay rick caught fire and the ensuing conflagration also engulfed and destroyed Mr. Vaughan’s rick.

The plaintiff prevailed in the trial court, and on appeal, Mr. Menlove argued that the jury should have inquired as to whether he used his own best judgment in the matter instead of “whether the Defendant had been guilty of gross negligence with reference to the standard of ordinary prudence, [because this] standard [was] too uncertain to afford any criterion.”

Decision and Ramifications

The court was deeply divided, but sided with Mr. Vaughan, because Mr. Menlove “had repeated warnings of what was likely to occur, and the whole calamity was occasioned by his procrastination.” Probably because of these divisions, the court was unable to articulate any rule for other courts to follow, and it would be about another hundred years before another court solidified and defined “duty” in a negligence case.

For prompt assistance with a car crash or other negligence action, contact an experienced Lake Charles personal injury attorney from Hoffoss Devall. We routinely handle matters in both Texas and Louisiana.