Menlove was not an ideal neighbour. Not only was he dismissive and thoughtless, but his tendency to ignore helpful advice was the source of much frustration in the village. Vaughn, Menlove’s closest neighbour, would come to blows with the farmer almost daily. Their arguments covered a variety of topics, mostly to do with the way Menlove disposed of his agricultural waste.

But after years of bickering, things finally came to a head, in an incident which would change the way we look at negligence defence.

The haystack

The haystack at the edge of Menlove’s land was out of control. Towering over the surrounding landscape, the pile made Vaughn nervous just looking at it, and he had told Menlove so multiple times. His main concern was the dry, brittle consistency of the stack, which he knew would go up like a tinder box should it come into contact with a spark.

Menlove, on the other hand, was less concerned.

“I’ll chance it”, he had told his neighbour, pointing out that he had added a “chimney” to the stack for safety reasons.

Over the next five weeks, Vaughn grew more and more agitated. He visited Menlove frequently, repeating his concerns and trying to make the farmer see how much danger he was creating not only for himself but his neighbours too.

In early 1837, Vaughn’s worst fears came true. The stack ignited, and before fire officers could douse the flames, they had engulfed the surrounding area. The blaze grew so large that it spread to Vaughn’s cottages, destroying them in minutes.

“The reasonable man standard”

Vaughn sued Menlove on the grounds the farmer had been negligent. The judge instructed the jury to use the “reasonable man standard” to decide whether Menlove had acted in a way a sane person would have, given the same information.

Courts have used the phrase for centuries as a benchmark for determining whether a person should have known better. It denotes a hypothetical person with average skill, care, and judgement, to stand as a comparative standard for determining liability. The Menlove v Vaughn case would force the court to examine if and when exemptions should be made.

Each to their own

Menlove’s defence argued that a subjective standard should be applied when discussing whether a person had been negligent. Lawyers argued that it was irrelevant whether a reasonable man would have considered the haystack a fire hazard, and that the judgement should only take into account what Menlove was able to consider. In other words, the judgement should be made based on the farmer’s actual intelligence, rather than that of a hypothetical person.

Despite this argument, Menlove was found guilty of negligence. The farmer appealed the decision on the grounds that the jury should have been instructed to consider whether he had “acted bona fide to the best of his judgment”, and that he should not be punished for “the misfortune of not possessing the highest order of intelligence”.

The court of appeal also rejected this idea. Sir Nicolas Conyngham Tindal delivered the unanimous decision that it would be too subjective, complicated, and variable to judge each individual based on their individual level of intelligence. Instead, the court ‘ought to adhere to a rule that requires in all cases a regard to caution such as a man of ordinary prudence would observe’.

This was the first case where the idea of a ‘reasonable person’ was tested in relation to negligence, and would go on to define the concept in modern negligence law.

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