Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council [2003]

English Tort Law

Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council [2003]
‘Solitary Swimmers’ by Pedro Covo

Reckless endangerment and the scope of relevant statute prove the nucleus of a case where the civil liberties of the general public and a local authority’s duty of care ran risk of judicial pollution when a life-altering injury led to a damages claim.

Purpose-built from derelict land, the 14-acre Brereton Heath Country Park was home to a popular lake known as the ‘mere’, and although the appeal of the lake drew over 160,000 visitors a year, the controlling borough and local authorities had prohibited swimming through the presence of warning signs, leaflet distribution, lifebelts, throwing lines and constant supervision by park rangers despite flagrant ignorance by the a majority of the attending public.

Unfortunately on this occasion the 18 year-old respondent elected to stand in little over two feet of water before proceeding to dive in, whereupon he struck his head on the sandy bottom and broke the fifth vertebrae in his neck. Now facing life as a tetraplegic the respondent sought damages from the local authority under the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 and Occupiers’ Liability Act 1984 on grounds that a duty of care was owed as both a trespasser and park visitor.

For clarity s.2(2) of the 1957 Act stated that:

“The common duty of care is a duty to take such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable to see that the visitor will be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purposes for which he is invited or permitted by the occupier to be there.”

While s.2(4) explained that:

“In determining whether the occupier of premises has discharged the common duty of care to a visitor, regard is to be had to all the circumstances, so that (for example) (a) where damage is caused to a visitor by a danger of which he had been warned by the occupier, the warning is not to be treated without more as absolving the occupier from liability, unless in all the circumstances it was enough to enable the visitor to be reasonably safe…”

However in 1976 the Law Commission gave recommendation to a statutory duty of care for trespassers as was given effect in s.1(1) of the 1984 Act s.1(1) while s.1(5) and s.1(6) further read that:

“(5) Any duty owed by virtue of this section in respect of a risk may, in an appropriate case, be discharged by taking such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances of the case to give warning of the danger concerned or to discourage persons from incurring the risk.

(6) No duty is owed by virtue of this section to any person in respect of risks willingly accepted as his by that person (the question whether a risk was so accepted to be decided on the same principles as in other cases in which one person owes a duty of care to another).”

This translated that where no award was found under the first Act then the same would apply by extension to the second, while leading authority for the conversion from visitor to trespasser was found in Hillen v ICI (Alkali) Ltd in which the House of Lords had held that:

“So far as he sets foot on so much of the premises as lie outside the invitation or uses them for purposes which are alien to the invitation he is not an invitee but a trespasser, and his rights must be determined accordingly.”

And so given the fact that swimming was overtly and historically prohibited, the respondent sought remedy as a trespasser with claims that the water had muddied his view of the bottom, whereupon mention was made to Whyte v Redland Aggregates Ltd  in which the Court of Appeal had explained that:

“[T]he occupier of land containing or bordered by the river, the seashore, the pond or the gravel pit, does not have to warn of uneven surfaces below the water. Such surfaces are by their nature quite likely to be uneven. Diving where you cannot see the bottom clearly enough to know that it is safe to dive is dangerous unless you have made sure, by reconnaissance or otherwise, that the diving is safe, ie, that there is adequate depth at the place where you choose to dive. In those circumstances, the dangers of there being an uneven surface in an area where you cannot plainly see the bottom are too plain to require a specific warning and, accordingly, there is no such duty to warn…”

In the first instance the judge held that the lake simply wasn’t dangerous enough to warrant local authority liability, and so dismissed the claim before the Court of Appeal extended the occupiers liability beyond one of reasonable limits and awarded damages, however under challenge, the House of Lords fully considered the accountability of the respondent before reversing the previous judgment and restoring the original findings  on grounds that the principle that individual risk-taking in the knowledge of visible danger was incumbent upon the owner was counter-productive inasmuch as failure to acknowledge warnings was not a precursor for liability when the claimant suffers harm, whereupon the House reminded the parties that:

“[L]ocal authorities and other occupiers of land are ordinarily under no duty to incur such social and financial costs to protect a minority (or even a majority) against obvious dangers.”

Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) [2004]

English Tort Law

Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) [2004]
‘Recycle’ by Steve Mills

Convention principles and the juxtaposition between public interest and individual  privacy lie central to a clamant’s case when the needs of a known supermodel are considered secondary to the public knowledge of her drug addiction, thus sparking fierce debate as to where the lines of journalistic privilege and private health ought to be drawn.

Following the appellant’s prolonged public denial, she was rushed to hospital for emergency treatment in what was described as an allergic reaction to antibiotics, however a few months later the appellant was photographed outside a known ‘Narcotics Anonymous’ venue before a newspaper article included a number of those images under the title ‘Naomi: I am a drug addict’, in which the publication revealed that despite  repeated protests the appellant was in fact a long-term narcotics user, and that in a battle to overcome her addiction she had enrolled into a self-help programme. 

Unfortunately one of the images had captured the sign of a well-known café, thereby allowing readers to know where she may be found, while the article text revealed how often she might be attending, while prior to its release the newspaper editor had contacted the appellant’s agent, whereupon they were told that the images proved a violation of the appellant’s right to privacy and confidentiality in relation the anonymous nature of her chosen therapy, and yet the respondents ran the story and litigation followed soon after. 

In the first hearing the appellant claimed for breach of confidence and sought damages under the Data Protection Act 1998, whereupon she was awarded a total of £3,500, after which the Court of Appeal reversed and discharged the award before the House of Lords examined art.8(2) of the Human Rights Act 1998, which reads that:

There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, of for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

And art.10(2), which reads that:

“The exercise of these freedoms since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalities as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protections of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, of for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

While noting how in Attorney-General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No 2) they had held that:

“[A] duty of confidence arises when confidential information comes to the knowledge of a person . . . in circumstances where he has notice, or is held to have agreed, that the information is confidential, with the e­ffect that it would be just in all the circumstances that he should be precluded from disclosing the information to others.”

Before the House further noted how clause 3(i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice of the Press Complaints Commission provides that:

“(iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent. Note – Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

However the House also referred to Bladet Tromsø and Stensaas v Norway, in which the European Court of Human Rights had held that:

“Although the press must not overstep certain bounds, in particular in respect of the reputation and rights of others and the need to prevent the disclosure of confidential information, its duty is nevertheless to impart in a manner consistent with its obligations and responsibilities information and ideas on all matters of public interest.”

Which was a position concurrent with s.12(4) of the HRA 1998, which reads that:

“The court must have particular regard to the importance of the Convention right to freedom of expression and, where the proceedings relate to material which the respondent claims, or which appears to the court, to be journalistic, literary or artistic material (or to conduct connected with such material), to (a) the extent to which (i) the material has, or is about to, become available to the public; or (ii) it is, or would be, in the pubic interest for the material to be published; (b) any relevant privacy code.”

And so by embracing both elements to the argument the House upheld the appeal on grounds that clandestine nature of ‘Narcotics Anonymous’ protected the needs and identities of those attending, thus when the respondents gained unauthorised access to the appellant’s treatment, they did so in the knowledge that it represented no less than a violation of her art.8 rights, whereupon the House reminded the parties that:

“Any interference with the public interest in disclosure has to be balanced against the interference with the right of the individual to respect for their private life. The decisions that are then taken are open to review by the court.”

British Chiropractic Association v Singh (2011)

English Tort Law

Chiropractic Association v Singh
‘Leaning Right’ by Steve Mills

Damages for libel and the freedom of expression, rely upon distinct terms of meaning for their preservation or application. And so on this occasion, the subjective opinion of an industry insider becomes the target of a writ that while not uncommon, does little to protect the reputation of those evaluated.

Whilst writing a tabloid article, the appellant doctor wrote of the respondents:

“The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence.”

In retaliation, the respondents issued a writ for defamation on grounds that when publishing the article, the appellant had implied on the basis of fact, that the respondents lacked any credible evidence with which to support its claims. During the trial, the judge elected to apply a ‘fact’ based test, as opposed to one of subjective opinion, whereupon the jury found against the appellant and damages were set, along with injunctive remedy.

During the appeal, the Court reexamined the actions of the judge when choosing to adopt a factual premise upon which to rest the defence, while exploring the meaning of art.10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Freedom of expression), with particular reference to De Haes and Gijsels v Belgium, in which the Court found that a journalist accused of libellous commentary was ultimately found to have merely expressed a ‘value judgment’ based upon collective facts relating to the field under discussion.

Here, the appellant had recently co-authored a book with an established authority on the history of chiropractic medicine, who had found through direct application of the methods common to chiropractic, that despite seventy experimental trials, there was no evidence to support the claims forwarded by the respondents, hence the commentary made within the article.

With these ‘facts’ in hand, the Court held that while honest in his intentions, the trial judge had erred in treating subjective opinion and reasoned commentary as statements of fact, and that by doing so had in essence contravened the rights contained under art.10, and reinforced the notion that challenges of those in authority were subject to punishment or forfeiture.

It was for this reason that the Court reversed the previous decision, while citing the words of Judge Easterbrook in Underwager v Salter, who had clarified how:

“[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation . . . more papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of images – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.”

While reminding the Court that language should not be used to distort, dilute or obscure the purpose of clarity when establishing liability for defamation or libel.

Barrett v Ministry of Defence (1994)

English Tort Law

Barrett v Ministry of Defence
‘Fra Balestrand’ by Even Ulving

Self-intoxication when subject to unenforced regulatory powers, while seemingly harmless in the early stages, becomes less a voluntary act than an inevitability when boredom and recklessness result in a fatality. Sadly on this occasion, the celebratory rituals of a naval base exposed a regime based upon irresponsibility rather than organised discipline.

In litigation by writ during early 1990, the widow of a naval airman sought damages for negligence arising from a breach of duty of care through the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and the Law Reform Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1934, after her late husband was found dead in his bunk.

In late January 1988, the deceased was celebrating his 30th birthday and pending promotion while stationed at the Barduffos Royal Naval Air Station, Norway, a base known for its leniency towards off-duty drinking, despite recognised preventative guidelines and clear definitions as per s.28 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957, which read:

“A person is drunk . . . if owing to the influence of alcohol or any drug, whether alone or in combination with any other circumstances, he is unfit to be entrusted with his duty or with any duty which he might be called upon to perform, or behaves in a disorderly manner or in a manner likely to bring discredit on Her Majesty’s service.”

While art.1810 of the Queen’s Regulations for the Royal Navy 1967 also explained how:

“It is the particular duty of all officers, fleet chief petty officers, chief petty officers, petty officers and leading ratings actively to discourage drunkenness, overindulgence in alcohol and drug abuse by naval personnel both on board and ashore. Should a man appear to be suffering from any of these abuses they are immediately to take appropriate action to prevent any likely breaches of discipline, possible injury or fatality, including medical assistance if it is available.”

On the night before his death, the deceased had consumed enough alcohol to lapse into unconsciousness shortly before midnight, after which he was taken to his room and left in the recovery position. It was during the following three hours that he was visited only three times, after which he had vomited and asphyxiated through inhalation of the vomitus. Within the base codes of conduct was guidance for dealing with inebriated servicemen, within which it read:

“(i) Keep the offender out of distance of officers or senior ratings so that he cannot commit himself by striking or by insubordination. Avoid altercation, (ii) Have him examined by the duty M.O. (iii) Should he be in a state of collapse, make sure he does not lie on his back so that he can suffocate if he vomits. See that he is sighted every few minutes.”

In the first hearing, the judge ruled that the appellants had, by virtue of their inability to enforce the regulations and codes of conduct, failed to provide a sufficient duty of care when managing the deceased and awarded damages of around £214,000, with a one-third reduction for the contributory negligence through over-consumption of alcohol.

Presented to the Court of Appeal on grounds of erring in law when comparing the Queen’s Regulations with the Highway Code and thereby over-extending the liability of the Ministry when passing judgment, the Court reexamined the facts, along with the threshold of culpability, whereupon it held that while the appellants had failed to uphold a reasonable standard of care, the choice to drink excessively was undoubtedly the primary cause of death, at which point the Court reversed the proportion of liability in favour of the appellants thus reducing the damages to roughly £71,000.

Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington Management Committee (1969)

English Tort Law

Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington Management Committee
‘Mom’s Poison Bottle’ by Leah Lopez

Professional negligence and the balance of probabilities were, at the time of this hearing, key ingredients to the maxim ‘novus actus interveniens’, which is used to determine whether the actions (or inactions) of a third party can be held liable for the cause of death, even when the primary act or event was of such magnitude that nothing could have reasonably prevented a fatality.

On New Year’s eve of 1965, three college watchmen were self-admitted to the casualty ward of St. Stephen’s Hospital, London, complaining of sickness and associated vomiting. Ironically, one of the men had been admitted only hours earlier, after suffering a blow to the skull by an unknown campus intruder.

Upon their arrival, the duty nurse listened to their complaints, before communicating them by telephone to the medical casualty officer, who was himself at home suffering with a sickness and associated vomiting. Having heard their symptoms, the advice given was that they should return home and wait until feeling better, aside from the victim of the violent attack, who was asked to remain in the ward until his x-ray, which was due later next morning.

Angry that no immediate solutions were offered, the three men left and returned to their place of work. Shortly after arrival at the college, the injured watchman was forced to lay down, where he remained until the college doctor arrived at 1pm on New Year’s day, at which point his condition had significantly deteriorated, and so when arriving at hospital at 2pm he was pronounced dead.

Upon examination, it was revealed that for reasons unknown, the flask of tea shared by the men at 5am that morning, was contaminated with arsenic, which while not enough to kill all three, was present enough to prove fatal to one. It was for this reason that his widow sought damages from the defendants, on grounds that the inability of the hospital staff to both diagnose and treat her late husband, was in fact the primary cause of his death, and that a liability for negligence was clear through an inherent duty of care.

At the trial, the criteria for negligence under a duty of care was first addressed through the words of Denning J in Cassidy v Ministry of Health, when he explained:

“In my opinion authorities who run a hospital, be they local authorities, government boards, or any other corporation, are in law under the self-same duty as the humblest doctor; whenever they accept a patient for treatment, they must use reasonable care and skill to cure him of his ailment…and if their staff are negligent in giving the treatment, they are just as liable for that negligence as is anyone else who employs others to do his duties for him.”

While through p.183 of ‘Winfield on Torts’ 7th ed (1963) the court was reminded that:

“Where anyone is engaged in a transaction in which he holds himself out as having professional skill, the law expects him to show the average amount of competence associated with the proper discharge of the duties of that profession, trade or calling, and if he falls short of that and injures someone in consequence, he is not behaving reasonably.”

A principle that was furthered by the witness testimony of Dr. Stanley Lockett, who enthused:

“In my view, the duty of a casualty officer is in general to see and examine all patients who come to the casualty department of the hospital.”

However, upon close analysis of the timeline between the deceased’s complaints and the event of his death, it was confirmed that despite hypothetically following all the procedural requirements when treating patients, the hospital would not have been able to administer the named antidote for arsenic poisoning (B.A.L), or apply an intravenous drip any earlier than around 12pm New Year’s Day, therefore despite the obvious anguish of the claimant and her anger over her husband’s untimely death, the defendants could not be held legally liable for negligence, despite failing under their requisite duty of care.

Abouzaid v Mothercare Ltd (2000)

English Tort Law

Abouzaid v Mothercare Ltd
‘Twinkling Eye’ by Pavel Guzenko

Manufacturer negligence and the powers of consumer statute are both central to a claim for damages, when a leading retailer is held liable for a loss of earnings through serious physical injury.

In 1990, the respondent’s eye was struck by an elasticated strap forming part of a foot warmer product known as ‘Cosytoes’, which was manufactured under the store’s own brand range. The extent of the damage was unknown at the time, however over the period that followed, the respondent was diagnosed with shallow temporal half-detachment of the retina, which in turn led to virtual blindness and total lack of central vision.

Some ten years later, the respondent sought damages under negligence, and through the powers afforded them under the Consumer Protection Act 1987. In defence, the appellants relied upon the investigative report of a highly qualified consultant engineer, whose notes confirmed:

“I conclude that in 1990 no manufacturer of child care products could reasonably have been expected to have recognised that elastic attachment straps for a cosytoes could pose a hazard to the eyes of children or adults, since the potential risk had not at that time been recognised even by experts in the safety of such childcare products.”

However, the engineer also stressed that:

“I found that for me it was quite easy to fasten the straps correctly from behind the seat unit. Attempting this from the front of the seat was more difficult, because it was not possible to see the fastening. It also required putting my head close to the seat in order for my arms to reach round behind it. I noticed that the elastic did have a tendency to pull the fastener through my fingers, and it could easily have slipped.”

Contrastingly, when transposing the requirements of the 1987 Act, Parliament was obliged to observe the terms of Directive 85/374/EEC in which the preamble outlined:

“Whereas, to protect the physical well-being and property of the consumer, the defectiveness of the product should be determined by reference not to its fitness for use but to the lack of the safety which the public at large is entitled to expect; whereas the safety is assessed by excluding any misuse of the product not reasonable under the circumstances…

[W]hereas a fair apportionment of risk between the injured person and the producer implies that the producer should be able to free himself from liability if he furnishes proof as to the existence of certain exonerating circumstances…”

In the first hearing, the judge found in favour of the respondent on grounds that embraced both manufacturer negligence and the presence of a defect, as described in s.2(1) of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which reads:

“(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, there is a defect in a product for the purposes of this Part if the safety of the product is not such as persons generally are entitled to expect; and for those purposes safety, in relation to a product, shall include safety with respect to products comprised in that product and safety in the context of risks of damage to property, as well as in the context of risks of death or personal injury.”

Upon appeal, the Court reexamined the previous decision, and revisited the argument that what was evidentially unsafe in 2000 was not deemed harmful in 1990, in light of there being no recorded incidents of that nature upon which to rely at the time. With reference again to the consultant engineer’s notes, the Court emphasised how he had also stated:

“I conclude that I should have to advise anyone manufacturing such a cosytoes today that the product would have a safety defect unless the potential risk of injury (to the eyes of a child in the pushchair or the person fitting it) was either eliminated by design or that consumers were warned of the possible risks and how to avoid them. Such advice to consumers would need to include instructions for fitting the cosytoes that avoided the obvious difficulties that Mr Abouzaid and his mother were having prior to the accident.”

And that despite a lack of recorded industry data with which to determine the safety of the product, there was little to explain how consumer awareness had remained static over the preceding decade, with particular reference drawn again to s.5.1.2 of his report, which itself remarked:

“[T]he level of safety that consumers can reasonably expect is not necessarily a constant, but will rise over time in small steps, if the state of industry knowledge of hazards and their prevention improves.”

It was for these reasons that the Court agreed with the essence of the earlier judge’s findings, and that the level of damages awarded were an accurate representation of the loss suffered through such a simple error in quality control and user protection.

Hinz v Berry (1970)

English Tort Law

 

Hinz v Berry
‘Grief’ by Cynthia Angeles

Damages for nervous shock (and even secondary nervous shock) are now not uncommon across many jurisdictions, as was outlined in my academic paper ‘A Comparative Analysis of Secondary Nervous Shock within Tort Law’ and as explored within McLoughlin v O’Brian, however in this matter, the courts were less certain as to how best to regulate the level of award, yet forged ahead regardless of any potential to undermine the cost of psychological trauma.

In spring of 1964, the respondent was returning home from a day trip with her sizeable family, when after parking their Bedford Dormobile in an available lay-by, an out-of-control car ploughed into the family, as she, the recently pregnant mother of eight children, stood helplessly watching from the other side of the road. With her husband pronounced dead, and almost all of the children suffering injuries, the respondent was left to pick up the pieces of her already challenging life, after which she initiated proceedings for damages.

Claiming pecuniary loss as a result of her husbands death, the court awarded £15000, along with an additional £4000 for nervous shock, as had been privy to such claims for the preceding quarter century. Upon appeal, the defendant-appellant cited a gross overestimation of the award for nervous shock, relying upon an absence of damages based tariffs in this particular area for justification.

With examination of recent case precedent and the comments of her consultant psychiatrist, who remarked during the trial that:

“[T]here is no medical doubt at all that she is suffering from a morbid depression; she is now officially ill.”

And how:

“In other circumstances I would probably have brought her into hospital, at least for a rest, but possibly for electrical treatment and it may come to that yet.”

The Court acknowledged the robustness of the respondent and her tenacity in the face of such a massive loss, yet illustrated that while English law precluded a right to compensation for grief and sorrow, evidential and medically diagnosable trauma proved an exception to that rule where such symptoms were demonstrable.

It was then that the Court uniformly outlined how it was beyond the power of the courts to undermine the significance of nervous shock, and that in any respect, judicial consensus supported the amount awarded through the comprehensive evaluation of the numerous years of suffering and morbid depression faced by the respondent in addition to her expected mourning. It was for these reasons that the Court upheld the award and dismissed the appeal.