Topp v London Country Bus (South West) Ltd (1993)

English Tort Law

Topp v London Country Bus (South West) Ltd
‘London Transport Rt’ by Mike Jeffries

Proximity and lack of foreseeability, prevent this tragic claim for damages when a grieving husband argues that the owners of a minibus are liable for the death of his wife.

In 1988, a minibus owned and driven by bus company staff, was left parked and unlocked with the keys in the ignition, in the lay by of a nearby public house. It was considered normal practice for the drivers of these vehicles to leave them there in that state, as literally minutes later, it would typically be collected and driven by a replacement driver.

On this occasion, the replacement driver failed to turn up for work due to illness, which left the bus unlocked and clearly vulnerable to theft. During the time between the driver leaving the minibus and the accident taking place, the original driver had noticed it had not been taken as expected, and promptly notified his employers. At 11.15pm that evening, an unknown person took the minibus, and shortly afterwards ran down and killed the appellant’s wife as she was out cycling. This led to action being taken against the bus company, on grounds of breach of duty of care, negligence and foreseeability.

In the first instance, the court dismissed the claim, whereupon the appellant claimed the judge erred in law on three grounds, namely (i) judging the claim unreasonable, (ii) holding that the facts fell outside the scope of award for duty of care, and (iii) not finding the respondents liable for the victim’s death.

In Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd, it was cited by Goff LJ that:

“[E]ven though A is in fault, he is not responsible for injury to C which B, a stranger to him, deliberately chooses to do . . . [that] may be read as expressing the general idea that the voluntary act of another, independent of the defender’s fault, is regarded as a novus actus interveniens which, to use the old metaphor, ‘breaks the chain of causation.’”

While in Denton v United Counties Omnibus Co, the court agreed that although an omnibus belonging to the defendants was stolen from an unsecured storage yard before bring driven into the claimant’s car, there was insufficient proximity between the owners, and the party liable for the accident to warrant any duty of care.

This translated that the thief and alleged joy-rider, was clearly in no position to consider the danger his actions posed, and irrespective of whether his identity could be established, and unfortunate as it was to have had his wife killed for no reason, a claim of negligence could not reasonably stand, on grounds of proximity and lack of foreseeability, thus the Court dismissed the appeal while holding that:

“[T]here was in the circumstances of this case a relationship of proximity between the defendants and Mrs. Topp. But I entirely agree with the judge that no duty of care is shown either in principle or having regard to the authority of this court…”

Stovin v Wise (1996)

English Tort Law

Stovin v Wise
Image: ‘Driving Around Coorg’ by Prashant Prabhu

This appeal case discusses the actions (or inactions) of public bodies, when operating under the guidance of statute and a prerequisite (albeit narrow) duty of care towards the general public.

After a number of road traffic accidents had occurred in a well-known intersection, the focus of  complaint by drivers at the time, centred around a small patch of land on one of the number of corners, which obscured vision and thereby contributed to the now growing number of injurious collisions.

When consideration was taken by the highways agency operating under the local authority to try and remove the affected area, the decision was taken to write to the land owners British Rail, and request that either the State body take steps to remove the blockage, or that permission might be granted for the local authority themselves to carry out the work, at cost to the State under s.79 of the Highways Act 1980.

Under the power of such statute, the local authority were at their own discretion, able remove the land at cost to themselves, in order to circumvent any undue objections, and while acting in the interest of public safety. Unfortunately, while the local authority did write to the corresponding public body, and a meeting was held to examine how best to proceed, the letter was ignored by the recipients, and the sender was later moved to another council department, without explaining to anyone that the matter was under review, and that further action was needed.

When the claim for negligence and breach of statutory duty was initiated by the victim of the accident, damages were awarded, and shared liability placed upon the driver and local authority (in varying degrees), after which an appeal was made by the defendant public body.

During the hearing, judge Lord Hoffman’s view of operational policy translated that:

“The distinction between policy and operations is an inadequate tool with which to discover whether it is appropriate to impose a duty of care or not.”

In other words, just because the highways agency and local authority were obligated to provide safe roads and road surfaces to the general public, private land that prevented an unobscured field of view did not render those same bodies liable for a duty of care, even if they had decided to take steps outside of prescribed statute to remove the obstruction at cost to themselves.

This case ties strongly with the constitutional concept of ‘justiciability’, which is to say that because public bodies are created by statute through the democratic process, the court recognises the limitations of their capabilities, and subsequently hesitates to challenge them.

Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd (1987)

English Tort Law

Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd
‘Naro Cinema’ by Marianne Kuhn

This appeal case explores the subjective reasoning behind duty of care and mindfulness of action when considering those nearby. In 1976, a cinema had been purchased and partially stripped clean of furnishings, as part of a renovation project by the new owners Littlewoods Ltd.

During the period between emptying the building and the resultant fire, there had been ongoing building works, that had been subjected to occasional acts of trespass and minor vandalism by local youths, despite typically applied security measures. When those reckless efforts had led to small fires and an eventual complete engulfing of the cinema in flames, it also caused substantial fire damage to two adjacent properties, who sought tortious remedy through an assumed duty of care and foresight, which the claimants felt could have prevented it. What then transpired, was that although the local police force and members of the community were aware of the transgressions leading up to the fire, they failed to notify the owners, therefore no additional steps were taken to tighten security and avoid the net result.

When the first hearing ruled against any liability, the appeal ended up with a similar outcome, as when applying the maxim ‘taking reasonable steps to prevent…’ it was deemed only fair in the event of unreported vandalism that the cinema had already been seen to have taken the expected steps to prevent vandalism or trespass, in accordance with societal norms. Likewise, the fact that previous attempts to start fires had gone unreported by the victims of such events, only seemed to fall under the umbrella of contributory negligence (at the exclusion of the defendants).