Damage is said to be caused by an inevitable accident when it is not caused intentionally and could not possibly have been avoided by the exercise of ordinary care and caution on the part of him who caused it. It need not have been inevitable in the stricter sense of incapable of being prevented at all.
The law is derived from a famous American case known as Nitroglycerine case, where there was a sudden unexpected explosion from a case containing nitroglycerine, causing damage to the building rented by the defendant.
The carries were held not liable on the ground that it was an unexpected accident. In those days the highly-inflammatory nature of nitroglycerine was not well-known.
It is now generally accepted in England that inevitable accident is a good defence in an action for trespass to the person as in Stanley v. Powell, where the defendant while firing at a pheasant accidently and without negligence shot the plaintiff with a pellet from his gun, it was held that he had a good defence.
But notwithstanding this general there were exceptional cases in which a man is said to act at his peril and to be made by law an insurer of others against the harmful results of his activities such as when (1) damage is due by the trespasses of cattle, and (2) damage is caused by the escape of fire, water and other dangerous substances brought or kept by anyone upon his land.
This is a defence closely analogous to the defence of inevitable accident. Although inevitable accident is no defence to the rule of strict liability laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher (supra), act of God is a valid defence to the same.
“Act of God may be defined as an operation of natural forces so unexpected that no human foresight or skill could reasonably be expected to anticipate it.” (Winfield) This defence is well illustrated in Nichols v. Marsland.
The defendant had constructed certain artificial lakes on her land by damming up a natural stream at a point higher up that the defendant’s land by damming up a natural stream at a point higher up than the defendant’s land.
An extraordinary rainfall, “greater and more violent than any within the memory of witnesses”, caused the stream and lakes to swell to such an extent that the artificial banks burst and the escaping water rushed on to the plaintiff’s land and carried away four country bridges.
The plaintiff sued on behalf of the country, contending that the defendant was liable under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher but this contention was rejected and the defendant was held not liable.
The Court held that she ought not to be liable for an extraordinary act of nature which she could not reasonably anticipate. It was said that one is only bound to provide against the ordinary operations of nature, but not against her miracles.
An act of God is distinct from inevitable accident. In order that an accident may be an act of God it must have followed directly from natural causes without human intervention.
“All causes of inevitable accident, casus fortuitus, may be divided into two classes, those which are occasioned by the elementary forces of nature unconnected with the agency of man or other cause, and those which have their origin either in the whole or in part in the agency of man.”
Thus if a ship is driven ashore by a tempest, this is the act of God; but if it is run ashore during a fog by mistake, however inevitable on the part of the captain, this is the act of man.
The defence of inevitable accident is a more general defence and is distinct from the act of God in so far as it is dependent on human agency and not on natural forces.
In T. Gajayalakshmi Thayumanavar v. Secretary PWD, Govt. of T.N., Madras, the Electricity Board was held liable for not maintaining the electric system properly.
The deceased, a cycle rider, who was going on his way was electrocuted by the falling of an overhead electric wire running across the road.
The court rejected the contention of the counsel of the Electricity Board that it was an unexpected incident due to rain and wind and that the snapping of the electric line was an act of God.
The court also rejected the contention of the counsel of the Electricity Board that the death took place due to the negligence of the deceased in his leaving the home that day in rain and wind.
Although inevitable accident is a good defence against civil liability, inevitable mistake is no defence. There is the well-known maxim “ignorantia juris non excusat” which means that ignorance of law is no excuse, ignorance may be either of law or of fact.
Every man is presumed to be cognizant of the law. Every man is presumed to be cognizant of the law of his realm and to construe it aright; and if an individual infringes it through ignorance, he must nevertheless abide by the consequence of his error.
It is not open to him to aver in a court of justice that he has mistaken the law, this being a plea which no court of justice is at liberty to receive. Here, in order to avoid the difficult enquiry into the inscrutable conditions of the human mind, Law has made it a basic principle that ignorance of law is no excuse.
Mistake of fact is a good defence in criminal law. So far as civil liability is concerned, it is a general principle that he who intentionally or semi-intentionally interferes with the person, property or reputation or other rightful interests of the other, does so at his peril; and will not be heard to allege that he believed in good faith and on reasonable grounds in the existence of some circumstance which justified his act.
If I trespass upon another man’s land, it is no defence to me that I believed it on good grounds to be my own. If in absolute innocence and under an inevitable mistake of fact I meddle with another’s goods. I am liable for all loss incurred by the true owner.
The plea of inevitable accident is that the consequences complained of as a wrong were not intended by the defendant and could not have been foreseen and avoided by the exercise of reasonable care.
The plea of inevitable mistake, on the other hand, is that although the act and its consequences were intended, the defendant acted under an erroneous belief formed on reasonable grounds that some circumstance existed which justified him. Such a mistaken belief in justification, however reasonable, is not in itself justification.