UNDERSTANDING EGGSHELL SKULL THEORY AND ITS RELATION TO CRUMBLING SKULL THEORY

INTRODUCTION

The eggshell skull rule refers to holding the negligent party (or the tortfeasor) liable to pay damages for the harm suffered due to his act by the person who had a pre-existing vulnerability which the defendant was unaware of. It says that a person who is as fragile as a thin skull or an eggshell if he suffers an injury higher than a normal person would have in the same situation then the eggshell person has to be compensated even for the extreme consequences suffered. It follows the doctrine that you have to take your victim as you find them. It states that the defendant must take full responsibility for their actions even if the plaintiff is more susceptible to injury than a normal person as the plaintiff has no control over it.

Case Laws to understand the concept

In Jaipur Goldens Gas Victims v. Union of India and Others, the court had asked the defendants to pay the deceased’s families compensation as their pulmonary tuberculosis had got aggravated due to the release of phosphine gas and thus they died at a premature age. Had the gas not been released, their condition wouldn’t have aggravated and they would not have died. The court said that the infringing party has to take the victim ‘talem qualem’ (you take your victims as they come). This doctrine is applied when the eggshell person’s pre-existing hypersensitivity is either aggravated or triggered due to the injury inflicted by the tortfeasor.[1]

In Smith v. Leech Brain and Co. Ltd., the complainant was a worker at the defendant’s company and was employed as a galvanizer of steel. He suffered a burn while working when a piece of molten metal splashed on his lip. The protective gear provided to the workers had some default and was not up to the mark. Hence, the employers were held negligent for providing faulty gear. The burn was later cured. But due to his pre-existing condition of cancer, he developed cancer and eventually died. A suit was filed against the defendants. The court in the judgement said that even though he had a predisposition to cancer, his condition would not have aggravated but for the burn and their negligence. Thus the theory of eggshell skull was applied in this case and the defendant was held liable to pay compensation including the development of cancer as the burn was reasonably foreseeable.[2]

In Owens v. Liverpool Corporation, MacKinnon LJ said: “one who is guilty of negligence to another must put up with idiosyncrasies of his victim that increases the likelihood or extent of damage to him: it is no answer to a claim for a fractured skull that its owner had an unusually fragile one.” This tells us that even if the defendants are unaware of the pre-existing fragility of the injured party, they are liable to compensate them even for the aggravated damages caused to them. Thus, this rule of the eggshell skull is applied in negligent and intentional tort cases to provide relief to the eggshell skull or thin skull person.[3]

Exception of eggshell skull theory

In case of a new intervening act which is also known by the phrase ‘Novus actus interveniens’, the defendant will not be held liable for the end result. If a separate and independent act intervenes in the act that has caused the injury then it will be known as an intervening act. The act will break the chain of causation and the defendant will only be liable for the foreseeable act and not the injury caused by the intervention. He will not be held liable for any further consequence.

How is it different from crumbling skull theory?

Often crumbling skull theory and eggshell skull theory are misunderstood. But there is a thin line of difference between the two based on the stable or unstable medical condition of the victim. Crumbling skull theory refers to a situation where the health of the plaintiff was already crumbling. The plaintiff’s situation would have anyways deteriorated even if the accident had not occurred. In such cases, the continuing deterioration has merely increased due to the accident. So, the tortfeasor cannot be held liable for all the injuries caused post the accident. He is only liable to put the injured party in the original position (i.e. before the accident) and not in a better position.

In the Thin Skull Rule or Eggshell Skull Rule, the situation of the plaintiff is aggravated or triggered due to the injury caused by the tortfeasor. The pre-existing condition would not have been aggravated but for the tortious act. In such cases, the thin skull rule is applied to pay damages and the defendant cannot argue that the injured party was fragile. In the crumbling skull rule also the plaintiff’s condition is more fragile than a normal person i.e. they have a pre-existing hypersensitive condition. But the difference from the thin skull is that in such conditions if the tortious act had not occurred, even then the condition of the plaintiff would have deteriorated.

Conclusion

Eggshell skull theory acts as a remedy against negligent acts performed by the tortfeasor. This rule makes certain that with the defence or excuse of the pre-existing vulnerability of the victim, the wrongdoer does not get away without paying compensation for his liability. It is followed that the tortfeasor must take the victim as they come. This rule seems fair and unjust as the victim’s condition gets triggered and has to suffer due to the negligent actions of someone else. The principle of Novus actus intravenous acts as an exception to the eggshell skull rule. Any intervening act to the tortious act that cannot be foreseeable cannot make the plaintiff liable for the injury caused due to that intervening act. The crumbling skull rule keeps a check on unjust usage of the rule of the eggshell skull. It makes sure that people do not obtain compensation unreasonably if their condition was anyways going to deteriorate. It is not a consequence of the negligence of the defendant. The wrongdoer just has to compensate to put the victim in the original position and not in a better position.

Author(s) Name: Niyati Tejani (Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai)

References:

[1] Jaipur Golden Gas Victims Association v. Union of India, 2009, SCC OnLine Del 3357.

[2] Smith v. Leech Brain & Co. Ltd., 1962, 2 Q.B. 405.

[3] Owens v. Liverpool Corporation, 1939, 1 KB 394.

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