Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd

English Tort Law

Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd
Image: ‘Naro Cinema’ by Marianne Kuhn

Note: To read about this case in greater depth, and with the benefit of full OSCOLA referencing, simply purchase a copy of ‘The Case Law Compendium: English & European Law’ at Amazon, Waterstones or Barnes & Noble (or go here for a full list of international outlets)


This appeal case explores the subjective reasoning behind duty of care and mindfulness of action when considering those nearby. In 1976, a cinema had been purchased and partially stripped clean of furnishings, as part of a renovation project by the new owners Littlewoods Ltd.

During the period between emptying the building and the resultant fire, there had been ongoing building works, that had been subjected to occasional acts of trespass and minor vandalism by local youths, despite typically applied security measures. When those reckless efforts had led to small fires and an eventual complete engulfing of the cinema in flames, it also caused substantial fire damage to two adjacent properties, who sought tortious remedy through an assumed duty of care and foresight, which the claimants felt could have prevented it. What then transpired, was that although the local police force and members of the community were aware of the transgressions leading up to the fire, they failed to notify the owners, therefore no additional steps were taken to tighten security and avoid the net result.

When the first hearing ruled against any liability, the appeal ended up with a similar outcome, as when applying the maxim ‘taking reasonable steps to prevent…’ it was deemed only fair in the event of unreported vandalism that the cinema had already been seen to have taken the expected steps to prevent vandalism or trespass, in accordance with societal norms. Likewise, the fact that previous attempts to start fires had gone unreported by the victims of such events, only seemed to fall under the umbrella of contributory negligence (at the exclusion of the defendants).

Key Citations

“It should have been reasonably foreseeable by Littlewoods if they had known of the activities of young persons observed by certain individuals in the locality. But they did not know of such activities because the individuals connected did not inform either Littlewoods or the police of them, nor did the police themselves observe them.”

“[W]hat the reasonable manis bound to foresee in a case involving injury or damage by independent human agency, just as in cases where such agency plays no part, is the probable consequences of his own act or omission, but that, in such a case, a clear basis will be required on which to assert that the injury or damage is more then a mere possibility.”

“[T]o impose a general duty on occupiers to take reasonable care to prevent others from entering their property would impose an unreasonable burden on ordinary householders and an unreasonable curb upon the ordinary enjoyment of their property.”

“[A] general duty on owners or occupiers of property…to take reasonable care to see that it [is] proof against the kind of vandalism which was calculated to affect adjoining property,”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

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