Topp v London Country Bus (South West) Ltd (1993)

English Tort Law

Topp v London Country Bus (South West) Ltd
‘London Transport Rt’ by Mike Jeffries

Proximity and lack of foreseeability, prevent this tragic claim for damages when a grieving husband argues that the owners of a minibus are liable for the death of his wife.

In 1988, a minibus owned and driven by bus company staff, was left parked and unlocked with the keys in the ignition, in the lay by of a nearby public house. It was considered normal practice for the drivers of these vehicles to leave them there in that state, as literally minutes later, it would typically be collected and driven by a replacement driver.

On this occasion, the replacement driver failed to turn up for work due to illness, which left the bus unlocked and clearly vulnerable to theft. During the time between the driver leaving the minibus and the accident taking place, the original driver had noticed it had not been taken as expected, and promptly notified his employers. At 11.15pm that evening, an unknown person took the minibus, and shortly afterwards ran down and killed the appellant’s wife as she was out cycling. This led to action being taken against the bus company, on grounds of breach of duty of care, negligence and foreseeability.

In the first instance, the court dismissed the claim, whereupon the appellant claimed the judge erred in law on three grounds, namely (i) judging the claim unreasonable, (ii) holding that the facts fell outside the scope of award for duty of care, and (iii) not finding the respondents liable for the victim’s death.

In Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd, it was cited by Goff LJ that:

“[E]ven though A is in fault, he is not responsible for injury to C which B, a stranger to him, deliberately chooses to do . . . [that] may be read as expressing the general idea that the voluntary act of another, independent of the defender’s fault, is regarded as a novus actus interveniens which, to use the old metaphor, ‘breaks the chain of causation.’”

While in Denton v United Counties Omnibus Co, the court agreed that although an omnibus belonging to the defendants was stolen from an unsecured storage yard before bring driven into the claimant’s car, there was insufficient proximity between the owners, and the party liable for the accident to warrant any duty of care.

This translated that the thief and alleged joy-rider, was clearly in no position to consider the danger his actions posed, and irrespective of whether his identity could be established, and unfortunate as it was to have had his wife killed for no reason, a claim of negligence could not reasonably stand, on grounds of proximity and lack of foreseeability, thus the Court dismissed the appeal while holding that:

“[T]here was in the circumstances of this case a relationship of proximity between the defendants and Mrs. Topp. But I entirely agree with the judge that no duty of care is shown either in principle or having regard to the authority of this court…”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Trainee Solicitor, Legal Author and Foodie...

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