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Tort Law Negligence Breach Cases

Blyth v Birmingham Waterworks Co (1856) 11 Exch 781

A water company having observed the directions of the Act of Parliament in laying down their pipes, is not responsible for an escape of water from them not caused by their own negligence. -The fact, that their precautions proved insufficient against the effects of a winter of extreme coldness, such as no man could have foreseen, is not sufficient to render them liable for negligence. -Fire-plugs properly constructed having been inserted as safety-valves in these pipes, in pursuance of their Act:- Semble, per Bramwell, B., that the company are not liable for not removing accumulations of ice in the streets over such plugs.

This was an appeal by the defendants against the decision of the judge of the County Court of Birmingham. The case was tried before a jury, and a verdict found for the plaintiff for the amount claimed by the particulars. The particulars of the claim alleged, that the plaintiff sought to recover for damage sustained by the plaintiff by reason of the negligence of the defendants in not keeping their water-pipes and the apparatus connected therewith in proper order.

The case stated that the defendants were incorporated by stat. 7 Geo. 4, c. cix. for the purpose of supplying Birmingham with water. By the 84th section of their Act it was enacted, that the company should, upon the laying down of any main-pipe or other pipe in any street, fix, at the time of laying down such pipe, a proper and sufficient fire-plug in each such street, and should deliver the key or keys of such fire-plug to the persons having the care of the engine-house in or near to the said street, and cause another key to be hung up in the watch-house in or near to the said street. By sect. 87, pipes were to be eighteen inches beneath the surface of the soil. By the 89th section, the mains were at all times to be kept charged with water. The defendants derived no profit from the maintenance of the plugs distinct from the general profits of the whole business, but such maintenance was one of the conditions under which they were permitted to exercise the privileges given by the Act. The main-pipe opposite the house of the plaintiff was more than eighteen inches below the surface. The fire-plug was constructed according to the best known system, and the materials of it were at the time of the accident sound and in good order.

On the 24th of February, a large quantity of water, escaping from the neck of the main, forced its way through the ground into the plaintiff’s house. The apparatus had been laid down 25 years, and had worked well during that time. The defendants’ engineer stated, that the water might have forced its way through the brickwork round the neck of the main, and that the accident might have been caused by the frost, inasmuch as the expansion of the water would force up the plug out of the neck, and the stopper being encrusted with ice would not suffer the plug to ascend. One of the severest frosts on record set in on the 15th of January, 1855, and continued until after the accident in question. An incrustation of ice and snow had gathered about the stopper, and in the street all round, and also for some inches between the stopper and the plug. The ice had been observed on the surface of the ground for a considerable time before the accident. A short time after the accident, the company’s turncock removed the ice from the stopper, took out the plug, and replaced it.
The judge left it to the jury to consider whether the company had used proper care to prevent the accident. He thought that, if the defendants had taken out the ice adhering to the plug, the accident would not have happened, and left it to the jury to say whether they ought to have removed the ice. The jury found a verdict for the plaintiff for the sum claimed.

ALDERSON, B. I am of opinion that there was no evidence to be left to the jury. The case turns upon the question, whether the facts proved shew that the defendants were guilty of negligence. Negligence is the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided upon those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do. The defendants might have been liable for negligence, if, unintentionally, they omitted to do that which a reasonable person would have done, or did that which a person taking reasonable precautions would not have done. A reasonable man would act with reference to the average circumstances of the temperature in ordinary years. The defendants had provided against such frosts as experience would have led men, acting prudently, to provide against; and they are not guilty of negligence, because their precautions proved insufficient against the effects of the extreme severity of the frost of 1855, which penetrated to a greater depth than any which ordinarily occurs south of the polar regions. Such a state of circumstances constitutes a contingency against which no reasonable man can provide. The result was an accident, for which the defendants cannot be held liable.

MARTIN, B. I think that the direction was not correct, and that there was no evidence for the jury. The defendants are not responsible, unless there was negligence on their part. To hold otherwise would be to make the company responsible as insurers.

BRAMWELL, B. The Act of Parliament directed the defendants to lay down pipes, with plugs in them, as safety-valves, to prevent the bursting of the pipes. The plugs were properly made, and of proper material; but there was an accumulation of ice about this plug, which prevented it from acting properly. The defendants were not bound to keep the plugs clear. It appears to me that the plaintiff was under quite as much obligation to remove the ice and snow which had accumulated, as the defendants. However that may be, it appears to me that it would be monstrous to hold the defendants responsible because they did not foresee and prevent an accident, the cause of which was so obscure, that it was not discovered until many months after the accident had happened.

Verdict to be entered for the defendants.



Hall v Brooklands Auto Racing Club [1933] 1 KB 205

Certain persons were the owners of a racing track for motor cars. The track was oval in shape and measured two miles or more in circumference. It contained a long straight stretch known as the finishing straight, which was over 100 feet wide and was bounded on its outer side by a cement kerb 6 inches in height, beyond which was a strip of grass 4 feet 5 inches in width enclosed within an iron railing 4 feet 6 inches high. Spectators were admitted on payment to view the races, and stands were provided in which they could do this in safety, but many persons preferred to stand along and outside the railing. Among the competing cars in a long distance race on this track two cars were running along the finishing straight at a pace of over 100 miles an hour and were approaching a sharp bend to the left; the car in front and more to the left turned to the right; the other car did the same, but in so doing touched the off side of the first mentioned car, with the strange result that the first mentioned car shot into the air over the kerb and the grass margin and into the railing, killing two spectators and injuring others. The course was opened in 1907. No accident like this had ever happened before.

In an action by one of the injured spectators against the owners of the racing track the jury found that the defendants were negligent in that having invited the public to witness a highly dangerous sport they had failed by notices or otherwise to give warning of, or protection from, the dangers incident thereto, and to keep spectators at a safe distance from the track. Judgment having been given for the plaintiff on these findings: –

Held, that it was the duty of the appellant s to see that the course was as free from danger as reasonable care and skill could make it, but that they were not insurers against accidents which no reasonable diligence could foresee or against dangers inherent in a sport which any reasonable spectator can foresee and of which he takes the risk, and consequently that there was no, evidence to support the verdict of the jury.


Gray v Stead [1999] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 559

Mr. Alan Gray was employed as a fisherman on board the motor fishing vessel Progress which was owned by the defendant, Mr. Keith Stead. At all material times Progress which was manned solely by Mr. Stead and Mr. Gray. On July 26, 1994 at about 2215 Progress sailed from Hartlepool on a fishing trip of a routine nature. The fishing grounds were about 18 miles to the north of Hartlepool and about eight miles east of South Shields. The vessel shot her gear at about 0345 to 0350. It was then just breaking daylight and in accordance with normal practice it was agreed that Mr. Gray should be on watch first. This involved him being in the wheelhouse. At all material times visibility, wind and sea conditions were good. The system of fishing involved Progress proceeding on automatic pilot at about three knots over the ground, turning to starboard gently in manual steering and then on reaching the return leg and settling on the new course, proceeding again on automatic pilot. After shooting the gear Mr. Gray stood the first watch. At about 0415 Mr. Stead turned in. At about 0635 he felt the boat jolt slightly indicating that she had come fast on her gear. He went into the wheelhouse and discovered that Mr. Gray was not there. He looked at the Decca navigator and could see immediately that Progress was approximately three to four miles south of where she should have been and on a south easterly rather than west south westerly heading. The steering was in manual. At about 0830 the body of Mr. Gray was found floating face down. A postmortem examination and inquest held on Oct. 11, 1994 found that the cause of death was accidental drowning.

It was common ground that how and why and where on Progress Mr. Gray fell into the sea would forever remain a mystery and it also became clear that had Mr. Gray been wearing a single chamber inflatable lifejacket he probably would have survived. It was common ground that it was not in 1994 nor nowadays the practice for single chamber inflatable lifejackets to be kept on small fishing vessels such as Progress. The defendant asserted in evidence that no fisherman in practice ever wore such lifejackets and there was no evidence to contradict him.

The plaintiff, as the widow of and administratrix of the estate of Mr. Alan Gray brought an action for damages the principal issue being whether Progress should have been furnished with a single chamber inflatable lifejacket by Mr. Stead and whether Mr. Stead should have instructed Mr. Gray on the importance of wearing it whenever he went on deck alone. The plaintiff contended that the risk of a seaman such as Mr. Gray falling overboard unobserved (with a virtual certainty of drowning) when alone on deck was such that Mr. Stead ought to have applied his mind to it and concluded that the single chamber inflatable lifejacket was the solution and so instructed Mr. Gray. Quantum was agreed at £61,000 subject to liability.

Held, by Q.B. (Mr. Geoffrey Brice, Q.C.), that (1) in determining whether the employer had acted reasonably one was entitled to consider the ambit of published guidance and regulations available to him prior to the accident and the practices within the industry; (2) at the date of the accident the legislation relating to the carriage of lifejackets on fishing vessels was contained in s. 3 of the Safety at Sea Act, 1986 and on the regulations made thereunder namely the Fishing Vessels (Life-Saving Appliances) Regulations, 1988 (S.I. 1988 No. 38); there was no dispute that Progress carried the lifejackets which complied with these regulations but these lifejackets were bulky and it was not suggested that Mr. Gray should have been instructed to wear one of these lifejackets as opposed to the single chamber inflatable lifejacket; (3) it was accepted that Mr. Stead as the employer of Mr. Gray owed him a general duty to exercise reasonable care as regards his safety and that a fisherman going out on deck alone was vulnerable; (4) there was a duty on each employer of a fisherman on an inshore trawler to apply his mind to the safety of such a fisherman and not simply to follow convention and practice without further thought; so far as the use of the single chamber inflatable lifejacket was concerned, this the defendant did not do; the danger of falling overboard and drowning in the case of a fisherman such as Mr. Gray on watch alone (but who was expected at times to go on deck), was small but sufficient for a prudent employer to conclude that notwithstanding existing practice on other trawlers an instruction to wear a lifejacket such as a single chamber inflatable lifejacket would minimize if not wholly eliminate the risk of such an accident; (5) if, as appeared to be the case, there was a general practice of not having and wearing lifejackets of any type on small trawlers when on deck such practice was unsafe; the defendant failed to exercise the duty of reasonable care in respect of the safety of Mr. Gray; that failure caused his death by drowning and the plaintiff was entitled to judgment in the sum of £61,000 (including interest).

The defendant appealed, the principal issue being whether in 1994 the standard of care required of an employer to his employee fishermen extended to a duty to provide him with a single chamber inflatable lifejacket and a duty to instruct him to wear it whenever alone on deck.

Held, by C.A. (Lord Bingham of Cornhill, C.J., Otton and Robert Walker, L.JJ.), that (1) there was no statute or statutory regulation requiring employers to provide buoyancy aids on trawlers; it was clear that fishermen in practice never wore buoyancy aids at the time of the accident; and the evidence confirmed that this was a general and recognized practice among fishermen even when working on deck; in 1994 there was nothing to indicate that the practice was “clearly bad” or “folly” in the sense of creating a potential liability in negligence at any time before 1994 and the reasonable and prudent employer, weighing up the risks and potential consequences was entitled to follow or permit the practice; there was evidence that the defendant did take positive thought for the safety of his workers (see p. 564, col. 2; p. 565, col. 1);

(2) applying the correct standard of care the proper conclusion was that the duty of care of the reasonable and prudent employer in 1994 did not require the provision of single chamber lifejackets and a system of work such that they were worn at all times when on deck; there was no justification for imposing on Mr. Stead a more stringent duty than the responsible authorities, after research and testing, were prepared to recommend; Mr. Stead had no reason to expect Mr. Gray to be working on deck nor was there any evidence that he was doing so at the time he went overboard; the appeal would be allowed on this ground alone (see p. 565, col. 2);

(3) the learned Judge correctly found that if Mr. Gray had been wearing a buoyancy aid when he fell overboard he probably would have survived; but the learned Judge could not reasonably have found that if a lifejacket had been provided and if the instructions to wear it at all times when on deck were given Mr. Gray would have departed from the practice of all fishermen and put on a lifejacket for such a short period of time; it was inherently unlikely that in the circumstances Mr. Gray would have worn a lifejacket; the vessel was found to be in manual steering suggesting that he was anticipating being away for a short period only and returning before it was time to put the steering back into automatic at the completion of the turn; the appeal would be allowed on this ground also and the judgment in favour of the plaintiff set aside (see p. 565, col. 2; p. 566, cols. 1 and 2).

Smoldon v Whitworth [1997] PIQR P133

See Duty of Care for PIQR, or below for [1997] CLY 3856:

N, the second defendant, appealed against a decision that he had been negligent in the refereeing of an under-19 colts rugby match, in the course of which S had been seriously injured when his neck was broken after a scrum collapsed.

Held, dismissing the appeal, that the rules in force on the date of the match included safety provisions for under-19s intended to prevent spinal injuries caused by collapsed scrums and required that a phased sequence of engagement was strictly adhered to during games. The referee owed a duty to the players to exercise a level of care that was appropriate in all the circumstances, although he would not be held liable for oversights or errors of judgment that might easily be made during a competitive and fast-moving game, Wooldridge v. Sumner [1963] 2 Q.B. 43, [1962] C.L.Y. 2033 and Wilks v. Cheltenham Homeguard MotorCycle and Light Car Club [1971] 1 W.L.R. 668, [1971] C. L.Y. 7829 distinguished. One of the duties of a referee was to ensure the players’ safety and he would be in breach of that duty if he failed to take steps to prevent a scrum collapse and would be liable for the foreseeable resulting spinal injuries, even though the probability of such injury occurring was slight. On the facts, N had failed to ensure that the standard sequence of engagement was used, evidenced by the large number of collapsed scrums occurring during the game which, in the light of expert evidence, meant N’s refereeing had fallen below an acceptable standard. Further, it was not open to N to argue that S had consented to the risk of injury by participating voluntarily in the scrum. S might have consented to the ordinary risks of the game, but could not be said to have agreed to N’s breach of duty in failing to apply the rules intended to protect players from injury.

Williams v Humphrey, The Times, February 20 1975

Before Mr justice Talbot [judgment delivered February 12].

A youth of 15 who went swimming with a neighbouring family and in playfulness pushed the father of the family into the swimming pool, thereby causing him serious injuries was held liable both in negligence and trespass.

The plaintiff, Mr Roy Webster Williams, aged 49, a quantity surveyor, of Ashtead, Surrey, was awarded £13,352 damages for personal injuries and costs against the defendant, Stephen Humphrey, also of Ashtead.

HIS LORDSHIP said that the two families were on friendly terms and on occasion the defendant would accompany Mr Williams and his family to the swimming pool. Mr Williams described the defendant as a nice, well brought up boy who always treated him and his wife with respect.
On the day of the accident in 1971, Mr Williams’s son invited the defendant to go with the family to the pool. At the pool everybody was having a great deal of fun and innocent pleasure; and there was a certain amount of ducking, splashing, jumping in, and pushing people into the pool.
As Mr Williams walked by the edge of the pool, at the shallow end where the water was only 3ft deep, the defendant pushed Mr Williams into the water, intending no harm but only to cause a big splash. Mr Williams’s left foot struck the edge of the pool, and he sustained severe injuries to his foot and ankle. He had undergone five operations and was now crippled.

The allegation in the statement of claim was simply that the defendant deliberately pushed the plaintiff into the pool without warning. Was it a negligent act? Three features of the case were relevant: (1) the act of pushing was deliberate, hard and without warning; (2) foreseeability of injury that might arise; (3) the defendant’s age.

The relevant principle was stated by Lord Atkin in Donoghue v Stevenson ([1932] AC 562, 580): “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law is my neighbour ? … persons who are, so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

On the evidence, Mr Williams had not taken such part in the activities at the pool that he could be said to have willingly accepted the risk of personal injury. It was against that background that the defendant’s deliberate act must be judged.

The defence relied on Lord Porter’s words in Bolton v Stone ([19511 AC 850, 858): “… the hitting of a cricket ball out of the ground was an event which might occur and, therefore, … there was a conceivable possibility that someone would be hit by it. … The hitting of a ball out of the ground is an incident in the game and, indeed, one which the batsman would wish to bring about; but in order that the act may be negligent there must not only be a reasonable possibility of its happening but also of injury being caused.”

With those dicta in mind, his Lordship found that the defendant by his intentional acts exposed Mr Williams to potential risks. His motive was irrelevant when considering the consequences of those acts, for the test was objective. The likelihood of injury should have been foreseen by a reasonable man, and since the risk of injury was not so small “that a reasonable man careful of the safety of his neighbour would think it right to neglect it” (Lord Reid in Overseas Tankship Ltd v Miller Steamship Co ([1967] AC 617, 643)) the defendant was negligent.

At the time of the incident the defendant was 15 years 11 months old. Though not a man, he was not a child, and it would not be appropriate to judge his conduct by a lower standard of care than would be expected of an adult person.

Nor was his liability affected because the injuries that ensued were graver than he could have foreseen, so long as those injuries were of a type which were reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances: Hughes v Lord Advocate ([1963] AC 837); contrast Doughty v Turner ([19641 1 QB 518).

Although the pleadings followed the pattern of a claim, in negligence, Mr Machin in his final address had relied on a second head of claim, trespass to the person. Mr Stuart-Smith had submitted that that claim could not be pursued because it had not been pleaded. In his Lordship’s view, a simple allegation that the defendant pushed the plaintiff into the pool was in essence an allegation of a trespass to the person, and it added nothing to that allegation to include the word “intentionally”.

All that was necessary to make the defendant liable in trespass was to prove that he acted intentionally. On the facts of the case, therefore, the claim in trespass was also made out. Whether the claim lay in negligence or trespass, the damages would be calculated in the same way.


Scott v London and St Katherine Docks (1865) 3 H & C 596

Held, in the Exchequer Chamber, that in an action for personal injury caused by the alleged negligence of the defendant, the plaintiff must adduce reasonable evidence of negligence to warrant the Judge in leaving the ease to the jury.- But where the thing is shewn to be under the management of the defendant or his servants, and the accident is such as in the ordinary course of things does not happen if those who have the management use proper care, it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of explanation by the defendant, that the accident arose from want of care. -In an action against a dock Company for injury to the plaintiff by their alleged negligence the plaintiff proved that he was an officer of the Customs, and that, whilst in the discharge of his duty he was passing in front of a warehouse in the dock, six bags of sugar fell upon him. Held, reasonable evidence of negligence to be left to the jury: per Crompton, J., Byles, J., Blackburn, J., and Keating, J. Dissentientibus Erle, C. J., and Mellor, J.

Ng Chun Pui v Lee Chuen Tat [1988] RTR 298.

The first defendant was driving a coach owned by the second defendant westwards in the outer lane of a dual carriageway in Hong Kong. Suddenly the coach crossed the central reservation and collided with a public light bus travelling in the inner lane of the eastbound carriageway. One passenger in the bus was killed, and the driver and three other passengers were injured. The plaintiffs, who were those injured and the personal representatives of the deceased, commenced against the defendants an action claiming damages for negligence. At the trial the plaintiffs did not call oral evidence and relied on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, contending that the fact of the accident alone was sufficient evidence of negligence by the first defendant. The defendants called evidence which established that an untraced car being driven in the inner lane of the westbound carriageway had cut into the outer lane in front of the coach, and to avoid hitting the car the first defendant had braked and swerved to the right whereupon the coach had skidded across colliding with the bus. The judge gave judgment for the plaintiffs on liability holding that the defendants had failed to discharge the burden of disproving negligence. On appeal the Court of Appeal of Hong Kong reversed that decision and found that the plaintiffs had failed to prove negligence. On appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council:

Held, that it was misleading to talk of the burden of proof shifting to the defendant in a res ipsa loquitur situation because the burden of proving negligence rested throughout the case on the plaintiff (p 300L); that in an appropriate case the plaintiff established a prima facie case by relying upon the fact of the accident and if the defendant adduced no evidence there was nothing to rebut the inference of negligence and the plaintiff would have proved his case, but if the defendant did adduce evidence that evidence had to be evaluated to see if it was still reasonable to draw the inference of negligence from the mere fact of the accident (p 301D); that the judge had mislead himself by assuming that there was a legal burden on the defendants to disprove negligence and he had also failed to give effect to those authorities which established that a defendant placed in a position of peril and emergency had not to be judged by too critical a standard when he acted on the spur of the moment to avoid an accident (p 302D); that in attempting to extricate himself, his coach and his passengers from a situation which appeared to him as one of extreme danger, the first defendant had acted with the alertness, skill and judgment which could reasonably have been expected in the circumstances, and that, accordingly, the appeal should be dismissed (p 302 H-J).

  • Scott v London and St Katherine Docks Co (1865) 3 H & C 596,
  • Henderson v Henry E Jenkins & Sons [1970] RTR 70,
  • HL(E) and Lloyde v West Midlands Gas Board [1971] 1 WLR 749,
  • [1971] 2 All ER 1240, CA applied.

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