Insight | February 2017
When we discuss proximity in law, there is frequently divided opinion as to (i) just what is meant, and (ii) in what context such a term can be properly applied. By definition, tort cases almost always rely upon proximity when establishing the claimant-defendant relationship, the relative distance between the two parties, and finally any subsequent obligatory considerations shared. Though for the sake of clarity, let us begin first with the Oxford Dictionary definition of proximity:
Noun [mass noun] nearness in space, time or relationship
Origin: Late 15th century from the French ‘proximité and Latin proximatas, proximus (meaning nearest).
While this explanation appears relatively straightforward, the complexities of human interaction often magnify the context of its use, insomuch as subjective opinion will almost always complicate matters, and leave final judgments in degrees of contention. This is largely due to a collective inability to agree precisely where proximity fits, and how it connects with other strands of legal principle.
Early illustrative proof of the need for exactness would undoubtedly be the speech given by Lord Pearce in Hedley Byrne Co Ltd v Heller and Partners which reads:
“[P]roximity will not be established unless at least the following conditions are satisfied….the plaintiff must be (i) the person directly intended by the maker of the statement to act upon the statement (ii) in a specific transaction of which the maker knows and (iii) for the purpose for which the statement is made. Exceptionally conditions (i) and (iii) may be relaxed provided the plaintiff is a person of whose actual existence (if not name) the maker knows, to whom he knows the statement will be communicated, and who it is likely with a high degree of certainty will act upon the statement in a specific transaction of which the maker knows.”
Or the even earlier words of Lord Atkin’s ‘neighbour’ speech in Donoghue v Stevenson:
“[S]uch close and direct relations that that the act complained of directly affects a person whom the person alleged to be bound to take care would know would be directly affected by his careless act.”
Or, an even simpler definition would be that:
“The claimant must be in an established relationship with the defendant and able to prove that any existing duty of care applied to them, whether through action, inaction or words”
Whichever phrase suits best, the typical contexts for proximity can range from customer and seller, through to diner and chef. In fact, the list of possible scenarios could quickly prove lengthy, yet despite changes in issue, the essence of proximity remains undiluted.
However, the general context of proximity deviated when through the course of accident and tragedy, the witnesses to those sudden and unforeseen events began to claim that the distress and trauma of such emotionally crippling scenes commanded financial assistance from the courts through damages. In those instances, the fluid definition of proximity was echoed by Lord Wilberforce in McLoughlin v O’Brian, who said:
“Where the relationship between the person killed or physically injured and the person who suffers nervous shock is close and intimate, not only is there the requisite proximity in that respect, but it is readily defensible on grounds of policy to allow recovery.”
Taken further still, the emergence of ‘secondary’ nervous shock forced the principle of proximity into new territory, this time allowing those indirectly receiving terrible news to seek a claim for award under the umbrella of proximation, albeit subject to specific criteria, as defined by Lord Oliver in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, who remarked:
“What remains in issue is whether the defendant owed any duty in tort to the plaintiffs to avoid causing the type of injury which each plaintiff complains. In essence this involves answering the twin questions of (a) whether injury of this sort to each particular plaintiff was a foreseeable consequence of the acts or omissions constituting the breach of duty to the primary victim and (b) whether there existed between the defendant and each plaintiff that degree of directness or proximity necessary to establish liability.”
Here, we see a variance in application of the principle of proximity, and one that demonstrated a generosity of scope over that regulated within everyday examples of arms-length dealings. Whether this broadening stemmed from the degree of harm, or was simply the choice of the courts to extend empathy toward genuine loss, is not easily traceable, but there are now notable differences.
Contrastingly, in the United States, the ‘dangerous proximity test’ is one used to determine criminal liability at federal and state levels. The two key principles being (i) that the defendant was dangerously close to completing the crime, or (ii) so close as to a result that the danger was great. The test itself, was first laid down in 1901, and later adopted by a Judge Learned Hand and read:
“(P)reparation is not an attempt. But some preparations may amount to an attempt. It is a question of degree. If the preparation comes very near to the accomplishment of the act, the intent to compete it renders the crime so probable that the act will be a misdemeanour, although there is still a locus poenitentiae, in the need of a further exertion of the will to complete the crime.”
While under the Turkish laws of contract, the ‘principle of proximity’ comes into effect where non-specification of parties applicable laws during cross-border transactions leaves the courts with the option to default to the nearest jurisdiction, with the effect of establishing implied and express contractual terms, as was explained by Dr. Gülin Güngor in 2008.
So again and as before, proximity is regularly used to help establish liability, reduce conflict and this time bring levity to matters that might otherwise become bogged down in their own rhetoric. With diverse applications of this flexible principle proving it an inarguable necessity, it concludes that the footnote of this article is really one that suggests proximity is far from a fair weather friend to law and jurisprudence; and that perhaps it deserves to play a greater role in resolving more disputes than is currently afforded access to?
English Tort Law
As with Topp v London County Bus (South West) Ltd, the 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.