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Defined: Damnum sine injuria and Injuria sine damnum

This article explains the concept of Damnum sine injuria and Injuria sine damnum with help of precedents and relevant laws; written by Krati Gupta.

Law of Tort

An important arm of civil law, the law of torts is a significant feature of the common law legal systems. Semantically, the word ‘tort’ is derived from the Latin word tortum which means twisted, crooked or deformed.[1]

Tort can be defined as a civil wrong that arises out an act or omission (wrongful act) on the part of the wrongdoer/tortfeasor and can be compensated with unliquidated damages. It is a law based on precedents and thus there is no definite code or procedure that governs it.

Three elements that need to be proved in order to establish the wrong of tort-

  1. Duty of care– The foremost element that needs to be proved is the existence of a duty of care on the part of the defendant.
  2. Omission of that duty of care– The second element is the omission of the aforesaid duty of care by the wrongdoer.
  3. Legal injury suffered by the plaintiff– The third element is the existence of a legal injury incurred by the plaintiff on account of such act or omission.

Legal Maxims

Legal maxim is an aphoristic statement which concisely represents a recognised principle of law, usually in Latin and derives its origin from the medieval European era. [2]Though these maxims lack the authority of law, yet they serve as beacons in guiding the court towards the path of fairness and justice.

This article seeks to discuss two important legal maxims of the tort law- Damnum sine Injuria and Injuria sine Damnum.

Legal Injury

In layman terms, the word injury is often understood as damage caused by an external force. However, in the realm of torts, the word connotes a ‘legal injury’ i.e. injury in the eyes of law. [3]In order to establish legal injury, presence of a physical wound or damage need not be proved. Mere establishment of an infringement of a legal right of a person constitutes the wrong of tort.   

Damnum sine Injuria

This Latin term can be understood as damage without injury. In this maxim, the word injuria means legal injury. As a recognised principle of the Law of Torts in India, damage without legal injury is not actionable in a court of law. Even if the plaintiff has suffered physical/monetary damage due an intentional or unintentional act of the defendant, the court of law would not grant legal remedy to him of his legal right has not been infringed. 

An important point that needs to be understood here is that the quantum of damage, in absence of unauthorised violation of legal injury, has no role in ascertaining the actionability of the plaint. Even the most terrible of physical injuries can go unpunished under the Law of Torts, if the violation of legal right is not established. On the other hand, even the slightest infringement of legal right despite absence of any physical harm can be actionable (though compensated with nominal damages).

Damnum sine Injuria Landmark Cases

The above-mentioned principle can be further elaborated with the help of some landmark case laws-

Gloucester Grammar School case[4]

In the present case, the defendant was a teacher in the plaintiff’s school who had, following a brawl left his services and established another school in the neighbourhood. Owing to the popularity of the teacher, many students followed his suit and joined his rival school. As a result, the plaintiff suffered monetary losses and a suit for indemnification was filed in the court of law. The question of law before the said court was whether the defendant could be held liable under ‘Damnum sine Injuria’.

Further, it was held by the honourable court that no compensation could be awarded albeit the defendant had suffered monetary damage, due absence of establishment of an infringement of legal right. Also, the defendant was well within his legal right to establish a school and the said act did not violate any right of the plaintiff. The monetary losses arising from the act of the defendant could not qualify as violation of legal right.

Mayor & Co. of Bradford v. Pickles[5]

In this case, the plaintiff filed a suit against the defendant for constructing a well on his own land thereby obstructing the flow of water on the plaintiff’s land thus causing monetary loss to him as a result of scarcity of water for distribution to the people catered to by the organisation. The court applied the doctrine of damnum sine injuria and concluded that the plaintiff was not entitled to compensation as the defendant had not caused any wrongful loss or violation of any legal right to him.

Chasemore v. Richards[6]

In this case, the plaintiff’s place was located at a lower elevation and the respondent was at a higher elevation. The defendant by constructing a well on his own land blocked underground water supply to the plaintiff’s mill thereby resulting in monetary losses to the plaintiff. However, the court ruled that in absence of any infringement of legal right of plaintiff, no legal remedy would accrue to the plaintiff.

Ushaben v. Bhagyalaxmi Chitra Mandir[7]

In this case the plaintiff alleged that continued sounds of religious invocation hurt her religious sentiments and thus prayed for a legal injunction. The court concluded that any hurt to religious feelings cannot construed as violation of legal right, hence the plea of the plaintiff was denied.

Mogul Steamship Co. Mcgregor Grow & Co[8].

This case relates to collusion by majority steamship companies to drive out one company by carrying tea trade at lesser freight. This resulted in wrongful loss to the plaintiff and was subsequently followed by civil litigation. The court held that since collusion by the companies did not result in any violation of legal right.

Action v. Bundell[9]

In this case. The plaintiff was lawfully carrying on mining operations on his own land which unknowingly led to draining of water kept on the plaintiff’s land. The plaintiff then filed a suit to bring about action for damages. The court ruled that since the action of defendant was lawfully justified and didn’t lead to the infringement of the right of the plaintiff, hence no action for damages lay.

Injuria sine damnum

This maxim is the mirror reflection of the aforementioned maxim. It means Injury without legal damage. As per this maxim, the smallest of legal injury even if it doesn’t lead to any damage is liable to be compensated with adequate compensation be it nominal, punitive or exemplary given the legal damage caused to the plaintiff.  Every person is entitled to some basic rights be it constitutional or statutory that he is capable of enjoying without any impediment to the same.

Any infringement of such rights is liable to compensated under law of torts by various types of damages or compensation.

The amount of damages depends on various factors- extent of legal injury suffered, nature of the right infringed, relationship between the plaintiff can the type of damage incurred, precedent requirement, extent of harm foreseen by the defendant, effort put in by the defendant to curb the damage caused etc.

Types of Damages

Nominal damages

These are the damages awarded to the plaintiff when the extent of damage suffered was very small or insignificant. Since the maxim of Injuria sine Damnum requires the common law courts to recognise even the slightest of the harm suffered, therefore such damages though as insignificant as Re. 1 are awarded by the courts in recognition of the infringement of the plaintiff’s right.

Most famously, Holt, C. J. has underlined the importance of nominal damages

 “If a man another cuff on the ear, though it costs him nothing, not so much as a little diachylon, yet he shall have his action against another for riding over his ground, though it did him no damage; for it is an invasion of his property and the other has no right to come here”[10]

In another famous case British Prime Minister Mr. Winston Churchill was awarded a nominal shilling in a libel suit brought against an author who had tarnished his image by publishing that he had been drunk in a party.[11]

Contemptuous damages

These damages are awarded by the courts when it feels that though the plaintiff’s legal right has been violated, he has not indeed come to the court with clean hands. The petitioner finds himself in the wrong when his legal right has been violated. In this case, the court awards damages in recognition of the legal right of the plaintiff though the amount of the damage is greatly reduced due to the wrong done by the plaintiff. The small amount awarded to the petitioner is to show the court’s scorn of the plaintiff’s base act.

Aggravated damages

These damages are awarded in due recognition of the exceptional harm or damage suffered by the plaintiff due to the act of the defendant. For e.g. if the plaintiff is sensitive to hearing maybe due to senility or ailment and the defendant knowingly played harsh music with the sole purpose of annoying him, the court may award aggravated damages.

In cases where a football player fell into a deep pit and injured his leg, he might be awarded aggravated in recognition of the damage caused to his sports career as opposed to a normal man who can claim only compensatory damages.

Punitive damages

These damages are awarded by the courts in order to deter social elements from bringing similar damage to any other person. Thus, deterrence is the motivating factor behind these damages.

Injuria sine damnum Landmark Cases

Ashby v. White[12]

This is a landmark case on Injuria sine damnum. As per the facts of this case, the plaintiff who was a qualified was prevented from exercising his lawful right to vote by the defendant. The court recognised that preventing a lawful voter from the electoral process is a violation of his legal right thus, the plaintiff was awarded nominal damages even though he had not suffered any physical injury or damage.

Asharfilal v. Municipal Corporation of Agra[13]

This case is similar to the British case of Ashby v. White. Herein, a voter’s name was dropped form the electoral list of local municipality elections due to which he was deprived from exercising his legal right to vote. Consequently, he brought about a plaint for damages to demand compensation from the Municipal Corporation of Agra for the violation of his legal right. The court citing Ashby v. White judgement, awarded nominal damages to the appellant.

Bhim Singh v. State of Jammu & Kashmir[14]

In this case Bhim Singh was an MLA of Jammu Kashmir State Legislative Assembly who, on his way to attend a legislative assembly vote, was apprehended by the state police and kept under illegal incarceration beyond reasonable time duration.

A Habeas Corpus plea was filed by his wife to obtain his malafide release. Upon investigation, it was found that the MLA was not produced before the magistrate within the reasonable of 24 hours after his arrest and also the police had obtained the arrest orders under clandestine circumstances which warranted due investigation and hinted at police collusion with rival political parties.

The Supreme Court recognised the democratic right of MLA Bhim Singh and granted compensatory damages of Rs. 50,000. Further, the relevant police official were reprimanded for dereliction of their lawful duty and malafide conduct.

 Marzettti v. Williams[15]

The plaintiff wanted to withdraw from his bank account using cheque. However, he was prevented from doing so by the bank manager. As a result, the petitioner filed a suit for damages on account of infringement of his legal right. The court recognised that the managers conduct of preventing the plaintiff from money from his own account even when there was sufficient money without any overdraft charges was a violation of the legal right of the plaintiff and liable to be compensated.

Conclusion

These two maxims- Injuria sine Damnum and Damnum sine Injuria are used by the common law courts to delineate a moral wrong from a legal wrong. The gravest moral wrong even with the most mala fide intention cannot be compensated with any legal remedy if there is no infringement of legal right involved. On the other hand, the slightest of legal right infringement even without any physical injury is to be compensated with a legal remedy.

[1] Ratanlal and Dhirajlal The Law of Torts 26th Edition

[2] https://www.mondaq.com/india/personal-injury/945062/legal-maxims-used-by-courts-in-india

[3] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/legal-injury

[4] https://indiankanoon.org/search/?formInput=gloucester&pagenum=2

[5]https://casebrief.fandom.com/wiki/The_Mayor_of_Bradford_v_Pickles#:~:text=The%20court%20held%20that%20as,the%20water%20beneath%20his%20land.

[6] https://www.casemine.com/judgement/uk/5a8ff8c860d03e7f57ecd5a3

[7] https://www.casemine.com/judgement/in/560910fee4b014971118305c

[8] https://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/torts/torts-keyed-to-epstein/economic-harms/mogul-steamship-co-v-mcgregor-gow-co/

[9] http://www.duhaime.org/LegalDictionary/P/PercolatingWater.aspx

[10] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/173563/

[11] https://dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=1332

[12] https://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/torts/torts-keyed-to-prosser/civil-rights/ashby-v-white/

[13] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1143315/

[14] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1227505/

[15] https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/1160/index.do

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