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A recent answer by Dale M. States that:

A pure accident without any negligence on your part does not expose you to liability.

Is this the general rule? What is the basis for that being so if it is? If you weren’t negligent then sure you didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s definitely more your fault than the person whose property you damaged, so why should they have to suffer rather than you?

All jurisdictions welcome, but please specify a particular jurisdiction for which your answer applies when answering.

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    You may want to update this question and include a link to the answer you reference by Dale M. The premise you stated does not appear to me to be a valid position.
    – jwh20
    Mar 16, 2023 at 17:26
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    You might also want to explain what you think an "accidental act" is. An involuntary nerve spasm might count: normally we think of an "accident" as being an outcome resulting from a well intentioned voluntary action that had an unforeseeable negative outcome.
    – user6726
    Mar 16, 2023 at 17:53
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    @user6726 Yes. One sense of the word "accident" is a loss causing incident caused by negligence. This ambiguity since the word has more than one sense to it is why casualty insurance policies almost always avoid using the word "accident" in their official legal language, usually preferring "incident."
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 16, 2023 at 19:28
  • Both this question, and many of the answers, ignore the cases where you can be liable for someone else's negligence. (For example, someone you hired.) Sep 27, 2023 at 6:38

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This is a rule, indeed a common law expression, about a "pure accident without negligence on the part of" a person, dating back in England to at least 1863; in the US found in Culbert v. Wilmington & Philadelphia Traction Co., 26 Del. 253, 3 Boyce 253

A pure accident without negligence on the part of the defendant is not actionable, and if the jury should believe from all the evidence that what happened in this case was of such a character, it would come under the head of unavoidable accident and the plaintiff cannot recover

and invoked in 2020 in New Hampshire in connection to a boating accident. As stated in Maletis v. Portland Traction Co., 160 Or. 30, 83 P.2d 141,142,

The words "mere accident" or "pure accident" imply that the accident was caused by some unforeseen and unavoidable event over which neither party to the action had control and exclude the idea that it was caused by the carelessness or negligence of the defendant, in which case, of course, the defendant would not be liable. 1 C.J., p. 395 and note.

Also, read this local Q&A on pure accidents.

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In Common Law Countries

In common law countries, Dale M. is right (the vast majority of the time).

Without negligence there is usually no liability for damage to property in an accident. The general rule in the common law rule is that "shit happens" and no one is responsible for the damage, when no one was negligent and everyone defendant acted reasonably under the circumstances. The "shit happens" defense is generally a valid defense to a claim for property damages or personal injury in common law countries.

"No negligence despite causation" findings are rare in auto accident or plane crash cases (absent truly extraordinary weather conditions or freak intervening causes like meteors falling from the sky that cause car accidents), but are common, for example, in professional malpractice cases.

For example, suppose a reasonably competent surgeon does surgery on you in a fairly high risk case. The best surgeon in the hospital could have saved you. You didn't get that surgeon and died. There is no basis for a suit for medical malpractice against the surgeon since the surgeon was not negligent, even though the surgeon was not perfect.

Also, sometimes the victim is the person primarily or totally at fault. For example, suppose a drunk driver T-bones your WellsFargo armored cash delivery car, which is built like a tank, in violation of a red light, with their SmartCar, and the SmartCar is totaled, while your armored car doesn't even have a scratch. Your car was a cause of the damage to the drunk driver's vehicle, but you have no liability for the drunk driver's losses, because you weren't negligent.

Strict Liability Exceptions To Negligence Based Liability

There are some exceptions if you have provided a warranty, guarantee, or insurance that the property won't be damaged (since contractual liability is generally strict liability unless otherwise provided by agreement). For example, you might be liable under a lease for any damage in excess of reasonable wear and tear from any cause other than the landlord's negligence.

Sometimes there can be negligence by someone your are responsible for even if you aren't personally negligent (which is called "vicarious liability").

There is strict liability for accidents caused by defective products even in the absence of negligence, and for accidents caused by ultra-hazardous activities (e.g. explosives).

U.S. states are divided about liability for animals that roam free with the main divide being between fence in states (mostly in the eastern U.S. and other more urbanized places) and fence out states (mostly in the west and more wild frontiers).

There are a few other exceptions, but they are rare and somewhat inconsistent between jurisdictions.

Comparative Fault

Also, the modern trend in common law countries is to allocate liability for accidents based upon comparative fault or modified comparative fault. So, everyone who was negligent (including the victim), or would otherwise have had strict liability for the damage, is assigned a percentage of fault (adding up to 100%) that is their share of responsibility for the overall loss. If no one is negligent at all, there is no recovery. In modified comparative fault, if the victim is at least either 50% or 50%+ at fault (depending upon the state), there is no recovery.

Some systems of comparative fault make negligent people who owe money jointly and severally liable with a right to contribution if you pay more than your fair share of the loss. Other systems limit each person's liability to their percentage of fault with no implicit guarantee of other negligent parties who are judgment proof.

Who Determines Liability And Damages?

In the U.S., and a small number of other jurisdictions, liability and damages are frequently decided by juries (and there is a right to a jury the vast majority of the time even if it isn't always elected). In most common law jurisdictions, liability and damages are always or almost always decided by judges (exceptions apply in perhaps 1% or less of cases).

In Civil Law Countries

In civil law countries (continental Europe, Quebec), the standard of liability for accidents in the absence of special cases like the ones discussed in the common law is that you are liable for damage that is your "fault." See, e.g. this article discussing civil law tort liability under Central American civil codes. It states:

Much like in Europe (think of art. 1382 of the Napoleonic Code), in the Central American civil codes, the concept of tort ordinarily rests on a general clause imposing fault-based liability, though it is possible to identify among these civil codes some interesting variations. For example, only in Honduras (art. 2236) and Panama (art. 1644) tort liability is characterized using elements such as: action or omission, fault or negligence, and obligation to compensate. Whereas, Costa Rica (art.1045) and Nicaragua (art. 2509) add other elements to the characterization, such as fault and imprudence, and in the Nicaraguan text, the notion of malicious acts is also included. The Salvadoran Civil Code (arts. 2065 and 2080) is rooted in the classic construction of delict, quasi-delict or fault, although it also adds features such as malice and negligence. The exception to this trend will be the Guatemalan Civil Code (art. 1645). Although it uses terms such as intention, carelessness or recklessness as defining criteria, this provision is not really describing a fault based liability model, because it contains a rebuttable presumption of fault or negligence.

The civil law concept of tortious fault is not spelled out in great detail in civil codes, although there are a few specific situations that are covered (e.g. bailments when your property is in the possession of another person and collapsing buildings). Civil law countries have instead been developed in legal doctrine in those countries that is not apparent from the civil code text.

Basically, civil law tortious fault involves some culpability greater than mere "but for" causation of an accident, but involves a lower threshold of wrongfulness than the concept of "negligence" in the common law, which is a failure to act as reasonable person would have to prevent harm to others under the circumstances. You can have civil law tortious fault even if you were acting as a reasonable person, but you still have to have at least done something slightly wrong. So, there is still a "shit happens" defense in civil law countries, but it tends to be much harder to establish.

Who Determines Liability And Damages?

In civil law countries, the call is always made by judges (or by panels of judges in cases involving larger damages).

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  • @cbeleitesunhappywithSX I can only rely on legal scholarship and civil codes I've read on the subject. But I think I've fairly articulated that standard. I'll find a link if I have time. I've provably linked to sources for that in other answers at Law.SE
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 16, 2023 at 18:07
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    Oh, yes, I think this is a good description. I have some links to German BGB in my answer. Mar 16, 2023 at 18:41
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    An example of non-negligent motor vehicle collisions is of a driver who suffers a previously unknown and unexpected medical episode resulting in the crash - heart attack, stroke, sneezing fit, seizure, insect sting/bite etc.
    – Dale M
    Mar 16, 2023 at 23:06
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    @DaleM or my case where a brake failure caused an accident. Investigation turned out the brakes on my car had indeed failed, something I could not have known because a few hundred meters prior they had worked at the previous intersection. I was also driving well below the speed limit so could not be faulted for my speed either.
    – jwenting
    Mar 17, 2023 at 12:27
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    @jwenting an interesting example, because if you had been told by your mechanic that your brakes were in bad shape and could fail but you did nothing, then you could have been found negligent. Alternatively, if you'd recently had your brakes repaired and it turns out the repair was faulty, the mechanic might be the negligent one. I suspect a lot of the time this comes down to how aggressive the plaintiff is in investigating the circumstances.
    – barbecue
    Mar 18, 2023 at 19:34
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I'm in .

If this were true in general, there wouldn't be any need for liability insurances to cover exactly these cases that ohwilleke describes as "shit happens", i.e. where the level of fault is below even being negligent.

However, there are also situations where the statement would apply. E.g., over here, if an employee accidentally* causes damage to their employer (say, break their work laptop) during some work activity the employee is not liable.

*or even negligently, as long as it isn't gross negligence


If you weren’t negligent then sure you didn’t do anything wrong

There is a concept of strict liability, where someone can be held liable even if they were not at fault. The idea is that some things are inherently dangerous but legal.

Examples (here in ) would e.g. be

  • A car is considered to pose a certain inherent risk. There are certain requirements to minimize this (safetying, driver's licence, forbidding drunk driving ...), and the keeper of the car must have a liability insurance (to mitigate the financial risk for others).

    However, §7 StVG does not require the keeper of the car to be at fault or negligent:

    (1) If, during the operation of a motor vehicle, a person suffers death, the body or health of a person is injured or an item of property is damaged, the vehicle holder is liable to make compensation to the injured person for the resulting damage.

    Thus, e.g. if there is a bicycle - car accident, damage (and liability) the car will be assigned at least partial liability unless the bicyclist is proven to have been in gross violation of traffic regulations. (Below that, the bicyclist is liable for partial damage to the extent they are proven to have violated traffic regulations, but every uncertainty i.e. the mere possibility of the driver having been negligent is assigned to the car's inherent danger. Even a properly parked, switched off and locked car can lead to liability.)

  • Similarly, §833 BGB for pets:

    If a human being is killed by an animal or if the body or the health of a human being is injured by an animal or a thing is damaged by an animal, then the person who keeps the animal is liable to compensate the injured person for the damage arising from this. [... exception: for non-pet domestic animals as long as the keeper was not negligent...]

    Example: I have a watch dog. The grounds are fenced, and the door closed. The door post has a sign on eye level saying that there is a dog running freely inside, and tells people to ring. We had hired a builder, who came half an hour earlier than they had said. They opened the door by putting their hand through the bars right beside the sign, and drove in. The dog was still out and got excited and jumped at the car, and some stone at his paw scratched the paint. While this was solved amicably (when we showed the sign to the builder he said he doesn't understand how he could have overseen the sign; and the scratch turned out to be shallow enough to be repaired by polishing), my animal liability insurance told me that regardless of any trespassing, as keeper of the dog I have full liability for any damage he causes.

My gut feeling for how German law works says that similarly, there is an inherent danger in drinking a coffee that it may be spilt - even without negligence - causing some damage. So if someone sits next to in a cafe me and I spill my coffee over their book, I am liable for that damage. And we both accepted the inherent danger of a coffee being accidentally spilt. The reader by accepting the risk of being without a nicely stain-free book until I replace it, and I by accepting the risk that I may have to pay for damaging the book. (A library would often not accept this risk: no eating or drinking inside)

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    "If this were true in general, there wouldn't be any liability insurances - which covers exactly these cases." People are regularly negligent. They could be distracted by a passenger, go through a stop sign and hit somebody's car. That's why you would still buy liability insurance.
    – user71659
    Mar 16, 2023 at 18:28
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    @user71659: I updated the sentence in question to be more precise about liability for accidents without negligence. Mar 16, 2023 at 18:39
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it’s definitely more your fault than the person whose property you damaged

That begs the question of whether there was fault, and whether the owner put the goods at known risk.

If you put goods out on a shelf for handling by the browsing public, then you're going occasionally to get those things dropped, and if they are fragile, then broken.

You wouldn't expect the same person to come in every day and drop something else, but amongst tens of thousands of handlings of items a day by countless people, there are sure to be accidents which do not involve anyone in particular.

It's also not an argument to say that the public should not handle goods, or that it is somehow improper for them to do so, since it is the express purpose of the retailer that prospective customers should browse and handle the goods (including things that may not be of familiar shapes and sizes to the public).

Insofar as someone has to pay for the damage, there is no reason why it shouldn't be the retailer who treats it as the cost of doing business in his chosen way and distributes the cost across all sales. The retailer also has the greatest experience with particular goods and a particular style of laying them out for sale, and is in the best position to make alterations to the circumstances when the level of breakage is not acceptable.

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    I'm in Germany, so civil law, and I'd say, in principle the grocery shopper would indeed be liable. However, however, for the occasional broken glass of pickles it is not economical to try collecting damages from the customer. The wage for the one mopping up is likely more than the cost of the pickles. And that increases if instead of the customer notifying them they try to get away unseen and the puddle spreads further/is spread by more people walking through it. Mar 16, 2023 at 19:03

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