What is the talem qualem or thin-skull rule?

cm_09_a3In situations where a wrongdoer causes some form of damage to a victim, the victim might suffer more damage than one might usually expect. This might be caused by the specific circumstances in which the victim finds himself/herself, which leads to the victim suffering more damage than the average person.

Could this be used as an acceptable defence for the wrongdoer, or must the victim’s existing circumstances be ignored when establishing the liability of the wrongdoer? An example of the above-mentioned is where the victim is in such an adverse financial position that he/she is unable to mitigate the damage caused by the Defendant.

The thin-skull rule

The case of Smit v Abrahams 1994 (4) SA 158 (K) dealt with the matter at hand and is still the leading authority relating to the aforementioned question. In the case of Smit, the Plaintiff was involved in a motor vehicle accident in which the vehicle he owned was damaged beyond economical repair. The Plaintiff not only claimed the market value of the vehicle as damages from the Defendant, but also the cost of a rental vehicle for a period of three months in order to conduct his business. The extent of the Plaintiff’s damage was therefore partly caused by his own financial position and the fact that he could not afford a replacement vehicle at the time. These type of situations are known as thin-skull (or egg-skull) cases, where the circumstances of the Plaintiff influence the amount of damages suffered. In general, the thin-skull rule dictates that a Defendant cannot use the extraordinary vulnerability of the Plaintiff as a defence. This is also referred to as the talem qualem rule. The rule is based on the principle that you take your victim as you find them.

In the judgement, the thin-skull question is discussed as part of the court’s enquiry into the issue of legal causation. With regards to legal causation it is held that a rigid approach should not be followed, but rather a more flexible approach. This flexible approach should be based on reasonableness and fairness and each case should be dependent on its own facts. The fact that the Plaintiff’s damage was partly caused by his own financial vulnerability, is merely one of the factors to be considered when establishing whether or not the damage suffered was sufficiently relevant to the wrongdoer’s conduct.


It was held that, considering the facts at hand, the Plaintiff was entitled to hire a replacement vehicle in order to conduct business and that this would satisfy the criterion of reasonableness and fairness. Because of the fact that the Plaintiff was not in the financial position to buy a new vehicle after the accident and a vehicle was necessary for him to conduct the business, it was regarded as fair and just that the Defendant should carry the expense of hiring a replacement vehicle.

In cases where the thin-skull rule comes into question, the court will have to determine whether it is reasonable and fair to state that the damage suffered by the Plaintiff and particularly the extent thereof, was caused by the Defendant’s conduct. The thin-skull rule, as originally contemplated and formulated, is not directly applied in South African law. However, the applicable principle, namely that the Plaintiff’s vulnerability does not serve as an acceptable defence, is considered as a factor when the element of causation is considered.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

Private defence of property

A3BThe common law provides that an owner may protect his property from harm or damage even though there might not be any physical risk of harm to the owner himself.

A person may use force in order to protect property and his or her rights therein. Private defence of property can only be resorted to if there is serious danger to the property or the owner’s rights therein. The danger must involve risk of loss, damage or destruction of the asset. The question is whether there were reasonable grounds for the defender to think that because of the offender’s unlawful conduct the danger existed.

There must be evidence that the property, movable or immovable, was in danger of unlawful damage and destruction at the moment action was taken. Unlike self-defence the danger need not necessarily have commenced or be imminent. Thus, private defence of property by means of protective devices is permitted in response to merely anticipated danger.

In order for a situation of private defence to arise, there must be evidence that:

  • l action was necessary to avert danger;
  • l the defence was a reasonable response;
  • l the defence was directed against the attacker;
  • l the attack was unlawful.

The measures taken to protect the defender’s proprietary interests must have been the only means whereby he could avoid danger. The rule regarding retreating has no application in the defence of property. One is not expected to abandon one’s property. Likewise, the inhabitants of dwellings are not expected to flee from homes, rather than resist the intrusion of a burglar.

The test is whether the means of defending the property were reasonable by having regard to all the circumstances, such as the nature and extent of the danger, the value of the property, and the time and place of the occurrence. The value of the property seems an important factor in determining the reasonableness of the defence.

In Ex parte Minister of Justice: In re S v Van Wyk the Court decided that killing in defence of property can be justified in circumstances where no other less dangerous or effective method is available to protect property.

In Ex Parte Minister of Safety and Security: In re S v Walters  2002 (CC), Judge Kriegler stated that while it was unnecessary to say whether our law allows for killing in defence of property, what is material is that the law applies a proportionality test, weighing the interest protected against the interest of the wrongdoer. These interests must now be weighed in the light of the Constitution. Judge Kriegler said that surely in Constitutional terms, the value of a life must be prized above the value of property.

The decision in Van Wyk is ripe for reconsideration by the Constitutional Court. Arguably the best route they could take is to draw a distinction between an excuse and a ground of justification. They could say that killing in defence of property is unlawful or wrongful, but in exceptional circumstances could be excusable if a reasonable person would have done the same thing.

It could therefore be argued that a deadly attack in defence of property would only be regarded as justifiable in extreme circumstances.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)