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.

R v Roberts (1972)

English Criminal Law

R v Roberts
‘Escape’ by Anna Dart

In a case involving assault occasioning actual bodily harm, the defendant appealed on grounds that an irrational act on the part of the alleged victim was sufficient enough to constitute ‘novus actus interveniens’, thereby breaking the chain of causation and defeating the charges held against them.

In spring of 1971, the victim was an engaged twenty-something who having spent some time together at a party, had decided to join the appellant in car journey in the early hours of the morning. It was during the journey that the appellant had misled the victim as to where they were headed, after which he attempted to have sex with her, despite her immediate protestations.

Having then asked to be taken home, the appellant threatened to force her to walk back if she failed to comply with his demands, but not before he had physically assaulted her. It was at this point that he attempted to remove her coat whilst driving at speed, thereby forcing her to open the passenger door and jump out, thus suffering from mild concussion and numerous contusions as a result of her escape.

Having wandered to the nearest house, she was taken in and then safely escorted to hospital for treatment and a three-day stay with lengthy cross-examination. At trial, the judge explained to the jury that in order to find the appellant guilty, they needed to be certain that it was his actions alone that had led to the victim’s injuries, and that his efforts to disrobe her against her will were tantamount to an assault.

Using the exact words:

“[I]f you accept the evidence of the girl in preference to that of the man, that means that there was an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, that means that she did jump out as a direct result of what he was threatening her with, and what he was doing to her, holding her coat, telling her he had beaten up girls who had refused his advances, and that means that through his acts he was in law and in fact responsible for the injuries which were caused to her by her decision, if it can be called that, to get away from his violence, his threats, by jumping out of the car.”

The jury were directed as to ensure they were satisfied that the two acts were inextricably linked, and that unless they could, beyond any reasonable doubt, identify and connect them, the appellant was to escape the charge held under s.47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. It was then found by the jury that despite reservations as to the weight of both parties arguments, the actions of the appellant were directly contributive to the illogical action of the victim and so the charge was upheld.

Upon appeal, the argument presented was that the judge had failed to factor the foreseeability by the appellant of the victim’s actions at the time the offence took place, and that when testing for assault, this aspect of the jury direction was absent. In response, the Court held that as was explained in R v Beech, the judge had rightly asked:

“Will you say whether the conduct of the prisoner amounted to a threat of causing injury to this young woman, was the act of jumping the natural consequence of the conduct of the prisoner, and was the grievous bodily harm the result of the conduct of the prisoner?”

And that at no point in English law had a prerequisite for the defendant’s mindset existed, as to allow such an obligation would immediately nullify any conviction held against them. It was then for this salient reason that the Court dismissed the appeal and secured the original conviction.

R v Cheshire (1991)

English Criminal Law

R v Cheshire
Image: ‘The Surgeon’ by Jose Perez

Novus actus interveniens’ or breaking the chain of causation, is a maxim often relied upon in criminal cases, however, while the principle itself is simple enough, the facts required to establish it prove far from clear. In a case involving the potentially fatal shooting of an unwitting victim, the surgical aftercare provided, became subject to the scrutiny of the courts when death followed soon afterwards.

In late 1987, the deceased was party to an argument with the now appellant, which resulted in three shots being fired from a concealed handgun. The first bullet was fired in the air above them, while the second and third entered the victim’s upper thigh and abdomen, shortly before the appellant fled from the scene.

Having been rushed to hospital, the surgeons cleaned up both wounds, while reconnecting the thigh bone and undertaking an extensive bowel resection in order to prevent further complications. In the weeks following his admission, the deceased complained of breathing difficulties, at which point a tracheotomy was performed, after a simple ventilating machine had failed to properly address the problem.

Around a month later his condition deteriorated, and so investigative measures were taken to inspect the stomach wound, while the deceased began to suffer with vomitous discharge and chest infections, later resulting in fluid permeation of the lungs. It was then, after numerous complaints and several visits by the consultant general surgeon, surgical registrar, orthopaedic registrar and finally the house surgeon, that his breathing pattern was recognised as ‘stridor’, a disturbing vibration typically associated with an obstruction of the larynx or windpipe.

Unfortunately, despite the intervention of a medical registrar and urgent cardiac massage, the deceased died as a result of mucus blockage of the windpipe resulting from excessive tracheotomy scarring, upon which the resident pathologist concluded that:

“I give as the cause of death cardio-respiratory arrest due to gunshot wounds of the abdomen and leg.”

At the trial, the judge directed the jury to establish a conviction of recklessness on the part of the hospital, which if proven, would support the breaking of the chain of causation on grounds that the hospital had failed to properly identify the actual cause of death, and that in doing so, the appellant’s actions were now secondary to the death of the victim. After a degree of jury deliberation, a verdict was passed in favour of the hospital, before the appellant challenged the judgment under s.23 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968.

Presented to the Court of Appeal, consideration was given to the principle of recklessness and gross negligence, while particular reference was made to the words of Goff LJ in R v Pagett, who said:

“Even where it is necessary to direct the jury’s minds to the question of causation, it is usually enough to direct them simply that in law the accused’s act need not be the sole cause, or even the main cause, of the victim’s death, it being enough that his act contributed significantly to that result…nevertheless the intervention of a third person may be regarded as the sole cause of the victim’s death, thereby relieving the accused of criminal responsibility.”

However in R v Smith it was also argued by Parker CJ that:

“It seems to the court that if at the time of death the original wound is still an operating cause and a substantial cause, then the death can properly be said to be the result of the wound, albeit that some other cause of death is also operating. Only if it can be said that the original wounding is merely the setting in which another cause operates can it be said that the death does not result from the wound. Putting it in another way, only if the second cause is so overwhelming as to make the original wound merely part of the history can it be said that the death does not flow from the wound.”

Before Lane CJ later reiterated in R v Malcherek that:

“[T]he fact that the victim has died, despite or because of medical treatment for the initial injury given by careful and skilled medical practitioners, will not exonerate the original assailant from responsibility for the death.”

With careful appreciation of the medical evidence, along with reasoned accommodation of the high threshold of surgical margins of error, the Court held that despite the alleged negligence of the hospital staff, there was simply insufficient evidence to uphold the application of ‘novus actus interveniens’, and that even with the best medical team on hand to treat the deceased, the fundamental cause of death preceding the complication was, and remained, the shooting by the appellant, and so on those grounds the appeal was dismissed and the original murder charge upheld.

R v Kennedy (2007)

English Criminal Law

R v Kennedy
‘California Poppies’ by Lynda Reyes

The domestic criminal law principle of ‘free will’ within the confines of substance abuse, is a question that by extension, remains fraught with uncertainty (with particular regard to Class A substances). In this drug related death case, the issue before the court was fundamentally one of autonomy versus conjoined culpability.

When two drug users were engaging in social discourse, the now deceased party asked the appellant to prepare a syringe of heroin, so that he might be able to sleep that evening. After preparing the drug in the manner requested, the appellant left the room, before the deceased self-injected the measured dose. Minutes afterwards, the user was found breathless, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the nearest hospital.

When heard during the original trial, the appellant was convicted of supplying a class A drug under s.4(1) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and administering the drug under s.23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. These two offences were then tantamount to a charge of manslaughter, and sentence was set at eight years, with five of those under imprisonment. When the defendant appealed, the judges unflinchingly upheld the conviction, and it so was that when the Criminal Cases Review Commission studied the finer details of the case, that it was bought again before the Court of Appeal, where despite strongly presented contentions, it was summarily dismissed and left to the defendant to seek final appeal in the House of Lords. 

With a need for investigation surrounding the notion that administration implied contributory action on the part of the supplier, it was eventually made clear that the pervious judges had become victim to self-misdirection, despite distinguishing case citations presented throughout the appeals. Ultimately the doctrine of novus actus interveniens  was sufficiently present enough for the injecting party to have acted under free will, and an appreciation of the inherent risks associated with heroin abuse; and that while the first offence (which itself carried a prison sentence) remained intact, the charge of manslaughter could not stand, when held against the perhaps better appreciated evidence now on display.