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Negligence: Cases

Use these example cases to help you understand how the main ideas are applied, and gain ideas to use in your own work.

Duty of care cases

Donoghue v Stevenson – The claimant drank some ginger beer bought for her by a friend. As the bottle was opaque she did not see the remains of a decomposed snail inside. After drinking some of the bottle she found the remains of the snail in her glass. She suffered physical and mental injuries. She claimed against the drink manufacturer. The House of Lords decided that, as a consumer, she was owed a duty of care by the manufacturer as she was a neighbour in law of the manufacturer. The neighbour test was the original test for establishing a duty of care.

Caparo v Dickman – A company bought another company. They relied on the accounts prepared by auditor for the acquired company – the company was not worth the amount suggested in the accounts. The House of Lords established a more modern test for showing a duty of care – proximity of relationship, foreseeability of some harm and it being fair just and reasonable to owe a duty. The auditor was found not to owe a duty of care to the acquiring company.

Bourhill v Young – A pregnant woman alighted from a tram and heard a crash. She went to investigate and saw a motorcyclist covered in blood. She suffered mental injuries and a miscarriage. She sued the relatives of the dead motorcyclist. The House of Lords decided that the injuries to her (as a non-involved pedestrian) were not foreseeable to the motorcyclist and she was not owed a duty of care and could not claim compensation.

McLoughlin v O’Brian – A woman stayed at home while her husband and children went out in a car. They were involved in an accident. She heard about the accident from a friend and went to the hospital about two hours after the accident. She suffered mental injuries as a result of finding one of her children dead and her husband and other children being treated. The House of Lords decided that she was owed a duty of care by the driver who caused the accident as it was foreseeable that the wife and mother of road accident victims could suffer shock when seeing them in hospital shortly after the accident.

Kent v Griffiths – An ambulance was called for a woman who was suffering an asthma attack. The call was accepted but, for an unexplained reason, the ambulance did not arrive until after the woman’s condition had worsened considerably. The ambulance service was found to owe a duty of care to arrive within a reasonable time as it was foreseeable that if it did not arrive (without an explanation) a patient’s condition could worsen.

Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire – The mother of the last of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims sued, on behalf of her daughter, the police for their failure to catch the Ripper before he killed her daughter. The House of Lords decided that it was not fair and just, and was against public policy to allow the police to be sued by a member of the general public who they did not know would be a victim of crime. The police did not owe a duty of care to the victim or her mother.

Breach of duty cases

Bolton v Stone – A woman was hit by a cricket ball whilst walking on a road running beside a cricket ground. She sued the club for personal injury damages. The cricket club had taken a number of precautions to protect passers-by including erecting a high fence. Evidence showed that balls had been hit out of the ground on very limited occasions. The club were found not to have breached their duty of care as they had taken all necessary precautions bearing in mind the level of the risk.

Paris v Stepney Borough Council – A mechanic was injured while welding at work. He had lost one eye in a previous accident and now lost the use of the other eye. His employers did not provide him, or other workers, with protective goggles. The employers were found to have breached their duty of care to him as he was particularly vulnerable (having already lost one eye).

Nettleship v Weston – A woman was given driving lessons by a friend. On the third lesson she ‘froze’ at the wheel and hit a lamp post which crashed onto the car badly injuring the friend’s knee. He sued her for personal injury. She was found to have breached her duty of care to him, even though it was only her third lesson. A learner driver is to be judged at the same standard of care as an experienced driver.

Bolam v Friern Barnet Hospital Management Committee – A patient was given electro convulsive therapy as treatment for his mental illness. He was given no relaxant drugs and as a result suffered a serious fracture. Opinions were divided whether relaxant drugs should be given for this procedure. The patient sued for the physical injuries suffered. The court decided that the doctor was not in breach of duty. The House of Lords introduced the Bolam test:

Loss or damage cases

Barnett v Chelsea & Kensington Hospital Management Committee – A night-watchman drank tea which contained arsenic. He went to hospital suffering stomach pains but was sent home without treatment where he died. His widow sued the hospital. The court decided they had not caused the man’s death as he would have died from the arsenic poisoning anyway as there is no antidote.

The Wagon Mound –The defendant's ship, The Wagon Mound, leaked oil into the water at Sydney Harbour due to the negligent failure to close a valve. Later some cotton debris became soaked in the oil and sparks from some welding works ignited the cotton and oil. The fire spread rapidly causing destruction of some boats and the wharf. A test of remoteness of damage was established. The test is whether the damage is of a kind that was foreseeable. If a foreseeable type of damage or injury occurs, the defendant is liable for the full extent of the damage, no matter whether the extent of damage was foreseeable.

Hughes v Lord Advocate – A manhole on a road had been left by workmen. The hole had a tent over it and some paraffin warning lamps were left by it. Two young boys went down the hole with a lamp which exploded causing serious burns. The court decided that the injury to the boys was not too remote as argued by the defendants. It was foreseeable that the boys might suffer a burn from the lamp. It was the type of injury that had to be foreseeable, not the exact injury suffered by the boys.

Smith v Leech Brain – The victim was employed in a steel foundry. He suffered a burn to his lip from molten metal. This burn activated pre-cancerous cells in his lip which were triggered by his injury. He died three years later from cancer. The employers argued they had not caused the cancer. The court decided that the burn was a foreseeable consequence of the employer's negligence which led to the man’s death. It was not necessary to show that death by cancer was foreseeable, nor that an ordinary person would not have died from the injury. The eggshell skull rule applied and the employer had to take his victim as he found them.