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.”