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.

Scriven Bros & Co v Hindley & Co (1913)

English Contract Law

Scriven Bros & Co v Hindley & Co
‘Hull Docks by Night’ by Arthur E. Grimshaw

Negligence and mistake, are two elements of contract law which conflict as between vendor and purchaser, particularly when the former is unreasonably applied to the buyer. In this very brief but notable case, the issue in hand turns upon the overpayment for a product at auction.

As was typical of the period, many agricultural products were imported for domestic use, as the temperate weather of foreign countries provided for larger tonnage and lower prices. On this occasion, the subject matter was Russian industrial grade hemp, which while grown widely across the UK, remained their largest export at the time, and was a much sought after commodity. Contrastingly, tow is a by-product of hemp, and is thus sold at a much lower price, often for use as upholstery stuffing and other secondary purposes.

When a dockside auctioneer put out large bales of both hemp and tow, the samples shown to potential bidders were easily confusable. To make matters worse, the two consignments were given similar lot names, therefore for those uninitiated, the possibility of bidding in error was high. On this occasion, the purchaser had recruited a manager to bid on his behalf, at which point he had placed similar bids on both items on the assumption that he was buying hemp. To his further detriment, the auction programmes failed to distinguish the lots, and so only those who had the foresight to inspect them beforehand were spared the embarrassment of overpaying for items of lower market value.

When the purchaser discovered his managers error, he sued the auctioneers for misrepresentation upon the principle of ‘ad idem’ (which is parties not in agreement to the nature of a contract), who themselves counter-sued for negligence on the part of the manager. In the original trial, it was found that there could be no evidence of a contract as per the principle of disagreement, and that no grounds of negligence existed in the absence of any duty of care by the manager to examine the lots prior to bidding.

When brought before the Court of the Kings Bench, it became apparent despite appreciation of a number of opposing facts, that the auctioneers had been recent victims of fraud, thus were simply looking to pass on the loss to another unsuspecting buyer. And so irrespective of any argument that the onus of inspection fell to the buyer’s representative, it was found that a contract could not be found to exist where no agreement had been settled between the vendor and the purchaser, and so the court awarded for the defendants, while holding that:

“A buyer when he examines a sample does so for his own benefit and not in the discharge of any duty to the seller.”

McLoughlin v O’ Brian (1983)

English Tort Law

Mcloughlin v O'Brian
Image: ‘Collage Car Crash’ by Patrick O’Brian

As with Topp v London County Bus (South West) Ltdthe principle of proximity proves the distinguishing criteria, however this earlier case pushed further the scope of award for damages, with an emerging appreciation for psychiatric nervous shock or trauma.

When the husband and father of four young children is involved in a collision with a commercial articulated vehicle (that had itself just collided with another articulated vehicle), the resulting injuries leave the youngest of the girls dead within minutes, and the father seriously injured, while lapsing in and out of consciousness. After being notified of the crash almost two hours later, his wife (and mother to the children) is escorted to the nearest hospital, where she is confronted with the aftermath of the accident, and left in a state of deep shock and profound distress; the effects of which were to be felt for many months afterwards.

Having chosen to pursue a tortious claim through the owners of the commercial vehicles, the original judges found that proximity and foreseeability precluded eligibility for damages, and so while admission of the daughter’s manslaughter provided financial remedy, the anguish and emotional turmoil of the mother did not.

However, upon appeal, the scope of award for incidents such as this was, for the first time, given consideration enough to result in a new precedent in English tort law, and significant allowances for the impact of psychological trauma upon secondary victims previously considered too remote for inclusion.

Criminal Law Terminology

Insight | February 2017

Criminal Law Terminology
Image: ‘Empty Kingdom’ by Sean Phillips

A crime can be defined both as any wrongful act causing harm to another person, or damage to another’s property, and any act that contravenes those proscribed by common law or statute. Similarly, criminal acts are actions requiring either rehabilitation of the offender and compensation for damages to property, or the victim’s psychological state,  which can also include incarceration in more serious cases (this can also be observed from a moral perspective inasmuch as actions that violate the rights and duties owed to the community), while the perception of criminal behaviour is also subject to various political and social factors, therefore can vary across nations.

A criminal definition is necessary in order to help distinguish a moral wrong from a civil wrong, and so criminal activity tends to be associated with some element of punishment when bought to trial, whereas a civil wrong is not considered an act of deviance, but a conflict of perspectives or contractual obligations.

The purpose of criminal law is to distinguish between the two previously mentioned wrongs, in order to help protect the public and the State from acts of aggression, or violent rebuttal; while the objectives of criminal sentencing are to allow an individual the opportunity to reflect upon any criminal act undertaken, and to help the public observe justice being done when miscarriages occur. In addition, the larger aim of sentencing is to maintain public order and minimise anxiety that could adversely affect productivity, and to help reduce crime through deviant punishment and protection of the public. Shown below are some common phrases used within criminal law:

Thin Skull Rule

This phrase means that despite any unforeseen vulnerabilities in a victim being bought to light during trial (or at case preparation stage), the amount of punishment or (tortious) compensation would remain as full as it would be should, or had, the victims been ‘normal’. An excellent case for this is R v Hayward, where the victim to a brutal domestic beating died of natural causes, yet the offender was held criminally liable.

Act of God (or Naturally Occurring Interventions)

These would constitute naturally occurring disasters such as floods, storms, bolts of lightening etc. that prevent criminal liability being placed upon a person.

Third-Party Interventions

Typically a lawsuit procedure, where the court allows a third person not originally part of the case, to become involved through joining either the plaintiff or defendant.

Medical Interventions

A phrase used to describe a medical procedure serving as an intervening act, which could break the chain of causality when establishing the cause of a victim’s death or serious injury. A case reference for this would be R v Smith, which involved the dropping of an injured solider on the way to hospital, an act alleged to have contributed to his death.

Breaking the Chain of Causation

A process whereby the manifestation of a victim’s actions or moral beliefs, exacerbate the wounding (and in some cases instigation of a death). A useful case for this is R v Blaue, where a Jehova’s witness refused a blood transfusion after being stabbed, thereby legally dying as a result of blood loss, instead of knife inflicted wounds.

Defendants Conduct Culpable

A term used where a defendant engages in set of behaviours or actions, that in and of themselves, bring harm to them, without the actions or inactions of another. In this scenario, a person or defendant cannot readily portray themselves as a victim, rather lacking mental capacity or sound mind and judgment. A case example would be R v Williams, where the victim was killed by stepping in front of a moving vehicle driven by an uninsured and unqualified driver, resulting in their criminal liability.

Actus Reus

The part of a crime that is concerned with identifying the conduct that criminal law deems harmful. It also describes what the defendant must be proven to have done (or failed to do) in circumstances that produce consequences attributable to moral guilt. The case of R v Miller provides that when waking up drunk to find his lit cigarette had started a fire in the home in which he was staying, the defendant simply moved rooms, rather than attempting to extinguish the fire; translating that his actions resulted in an act of arson.

Mens Rea

A term used to describe the element in a criminal offence relating to the defendant’s mental state. Examples of mens rea include intention, recklessness, negligence, dishonesty or knowledge. This legal principle plays a crucial role in ensuring that only blameworthy defendants are punished for their crimes, however, mens rea is not equivalent to moral guilt. A useful case example is Collins v Wilcockwhere it was found that when attempting to question a member of the public, a police officer grabbed their arm with the aim of physically restraining and harming them, as opposed to getting their attention.

Intention

How a defendant determines a consequence of his actions when he acts with the aim, or purpose, of producing that consequence. The case of R v Haigh showed that while the appeal jury had clear evidence a mother had intended to smother her child, a lack of mens rea reduced the verdict from murder to manslaughter.

Recklessness

When a defendant was aware of a risk attached to their conduct, and that the risk was an unreasonable one to take. A useful case for this is R v G, where the judges held that a minor was not capable of possessing the reasoning ability of an adult.

Negligence

When a defendant has behaved in way a reasonable person would not (see also recklessness). A perhaps extreme example of this is R v Adomako, where an anaesthetist failed to observe an oxygen supply disconnection that resulted in his patient’s death.

Novus Actus Interveniens 

A term used to describe a break in the chain of causation bought about by a new action, that alters the effect of injury (or death) of a person in such a way that alters the identity of the person culpable; or a free and voluntary act of a third party, that renders the original act a substantial and operating cause of injury or death. An example of this would be R v Jordan, where a stabbing victim had a fatal allergic reaction to a hospital administered drug, therefore altering the cause of injury and subsequent death; and in R v Kennedy, where the supply of heroin did not constitute liability for a users death.

Hedley Byrne & Co Ltd v Heller and Partners (1963)

English Tort Law

Hedley Byrne & Co Ltd v Heller and Partners
‘Bankruptcy’ by Vladimir Makovsky

Duty of care under accusations of negligence, particularly within the carelessness of speech, forms the basis of a claim between a corporate entity and a merchant bank. On this occasion, the appellant advertising agency had taken steps to ascertain the financial credibility of a new client; which while careless in its execution, left them at a considerable loss when the information proved worthless.

In 1957, the appellants received instruction from a new client requiring a number of advertisements, which was later followed by a request for a structured advertising programme with estimated costs of around £100,000 p.a. Given the short-term trading history between them, the appellants asked their bank to consult their client’s bank so as to establish their financial standing. 

The reference, which was by no means official, read that their client was ‘a respectably constituted company whose trading connection is expanding speedily’ and that ‘We consider the company to be quite good for its engagements’. Upon this positive note, the appellants proceeded to organise scheduled television and newspaper slots at cost to themselves, on the strength of the bank’s statement.

Several months later, the appellants concerns for the financial integrity of their client grew to the point where a second reference was requested. This time, an oral banker’s report was provided for by the respondents, that while detailed enough to warrant a sound response, was issued under the express notice that it was given with no responsibility for the outcome of the enquiry. Within this report was knowledge that the client was a subsidiary of a parent corporation in the throes of liquidation, but the bank similarly emphasised that they had confidence in the director and his integrity as a businessman.

With written confirmation of the report sent by the bank to the appellants, the terms expressed were relied upon when in light of their client’s liquidation, the appellants suffered losses of around £17,000. It was this somewhat unsurprising event that triggered a claim for damages, based upon negligence by the respondents when offering statements that were contributory to the appellant’s extension of credit.

In the first instance, the court awarded in favour of the respondents, and when taken to the Court of Appeal, the outcome remained unchanged on grounds that such principles were unreasonably applied to the unrehearsed statements of a banker, and not an official credit report. Presented to the House of Lords, the principles of negligence peripheral to any contract, were examined for exactness, whereupon the dicta of Sir Roundell Palmer in Peek v Gurney initially proposed that:

“[I]n order that a person may avail himself of relief founded on it he must show that there was such a proximate relation between himself and the person making the representation as to bring them virtually into the position of parties contracting with each other…”

There was also mention of Candler v Crane, Christmas & Co, in which a proposed corporate takeover involved the presentation of company accounts to the prospective buyers, accounts that by all intentions had been carelessly prepared, and on which the investors had relied when purchasing the firm. While in Robinson v National Bank of Scotland Ltd, a guarantor was left facing huge debts when it was argued he had been falsely induced into signing by the lenders, prior to the borrowers lapsing into bankruptcy. In this matter, Haldane LJ commented:

“[W]hen a mere inquiry is made by one banker of another, who stands in no special relation to him, then, in the absence of special circumstances from which a contract to be careful can be inferred, I think there is no duty excepting the duty of common honesty…”

While in Shiells v Blackburne, Loughborough LJ stressed that:

“[I]f a man gratuitously undertakes to do a thing to the best of his skill, where his situation or profession is such as to imply skill, an omission of that skill is imputable to him as gross negligence.”

In Cann v Willson, the claimants sought the professional opinion of valuers when borrowing against the worth of their home; and having provided what was suggested as a moderate valuation, the claimant defaulted on the required payments, whereupon the sale of the property failed to cover the debt owed. On this occasion, the court awarded in favour of the claimant on grounds of negligence, want of skill, breach of duty and misrepresentation.

In Nocton v Lord Ashburton, Shaw LJ propagated the principle that:

“[O]nce the relations of parties have been ascertained to be those in which a duty is laid upon one person of giving information or advice to another upon which that other is entitled to rely as the basis of a transaction, responsibility for error amounting to misrepresentation in any statement made will attach to the adviser or informer, although the information and advice have been given not fraudulently but in good faith.”

This translated to a recognition by the House that while there was no question that a duty of honesty was inherent to the words of the bankers, there was no evidence to suggest fraudulent or misrepresentative intention, particularly when at the time the advice or report was issued, the respondents had expressed their abject unwillingness to be held to account for the actions of the company discussed. This left the appellants with no substance upon which to claim damages and so the appeal was uniformly dismissed, while the House held that:

“[I]f someone possessed of a special skill undertakes, quite irrespective of contract, to apply that skill for the assistance of another person who relies upon such skill, a duty of care will arise. The fact that the service is to be given by means of or by the instrumentality of words can make no difference.”