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.”

Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. State of Minn. (1910)

US Criminal Law

Shevlin
‘Fallen Timber’ by Jospeh Laverti

The constitutionality of statute drafted and designed to preserve the interests of a State, coupled with the presumption that such laws are irrelevant to the needs of commerce, provide the basis of a case where those later prosecuted are left arguing that word of mouth is sufficient grounds upon which to acquire property.

Having operated as a timber merchant under State licence, the plaintiff in error corporation found themselves in need of a second licence extension following the recent expiration of their previous reissue, and so instead of applying through the proper channels, chose to rely upon verbal declarations of State officials as to their ability to continue removing trees from government land.

For clarity at the time of the offence, § 7 of the Laws of Minnesota 1895 stated that:

“If any person, firm or corporation, without a valid and existing permit therefor, cuts or employs, or induces any other person, firm or corporation to cut, or assist in cutting any timber of whatsoever description, on state lands, or removes or carries away or employs, or induces or assists any other person, firm or corporation to remove or carry away any such timber, or other property, he shall be liable to the state in treble damages, if such trespass is adjudged to have been willful; but double damages only in case the trespass is adjudged to have been casual and involuntary….”

And so when the plaintiff in error’s activities were discovered, the defendant in error brought charges in the District Court of St. Louis County on grounds of wilful trespass, thus claiming treble damages as prescribed.

Here the court found for the defendant in error and awarded damages of around $44,000, whereupon the plaintiff in error challenged the judgment in the Minnesota Supreme Court, who upheld the judgment, while holding that:

“The Legislature may declare that a willful trespass upon the lands of another shall constitute a criminal offense and fix the limits of punishment therefor, either by fine or imprisonment, or by compensating the injured party in damages to be recovered in a civil action, or by both, as its judgment may dictate.”

After which the plaintiff in error appealed on grounds that it had acted in good faith and reliance upon the statements made by those with apparent authority, while in response the court referred to State v. Shevlin-Carpenter Co., in which it had earlier held that:

“Where the defendant is a willful trespasser, the measure of damages is the full value of the property at the time and place of demand; but, if he is only an unintentional or mistaken trespasser,-that is, where he honestly and reasonably believed that he had a legal right to take the property,-then the measure of damages is the value of the property at the time and place and in the condition it was taken.”

Before partially reversing their previous judgment and remanding the matter back in keeping with a significant reduction in damages, thus the plaintiff in error challenged the decision under writ of error in the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the statue was violative of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when denying due process, and that as such, no damages were due.

Having reexamined the facts and constitutional argument, along with the right to protect State property through appropriate statute, the Court reasoned that at no point was the questioned legislation hidden from view, nor remotely difficult to understand, while also noting that contrastingly, at no point in history had trespass ever been considered a harmless act.

In closing the Court also noted that despite the harshness of its construction, the State had proscribed the offence within constitutional bounds, and were therefore sound in their enforcement, after which it upheld the previous judgment in full, while holding that:

“[I]nnocence cannot be asserted of an action which violates existing law, and ignorance of the law will not excuse.”

Trespass

Insight | August 2017

Trespass
‘No Trespassing’ by Arthur Wardle

For clarification, there are two types of trespass, namely trespass to the person and trespass to land. As with anything requiring individual expansion, we will begin by looking at trespass to the person.

Trespass to the person
Trespass to the person includes three torts, ranging from (i) battery (ii) assault and (iii) false imprisonment, as first truly defined by Goff LJ in Collins v Warlock when he said:

“An assault is an act which causes another person to apprehend the infliction of immediate, unlawful, force on his person; a battery is the actual infliction of unlawful force on another person. Both assault and battery are forms of trespass to the person. Another form of trespass to the person is false imprisonment, which is the unlawful imposition of constraint upon another’s freedom of movement from a particular place.”

(i) Battery
While claiming accidental causes, the defendant in Williams v Humphrey was found liable for battery after pushing the victim into a swimming pool, whereupon the claimant broke his ankle. Given that the intention to push the victim was present, no argument to the contrary could reasonably stand and so damages were awarded.

(ii) Assault
In R v Ireland, a number of women subjected to continuous psychological damage through repeated abusive phone calls, were given the right to claim for assault, even though they never met the defendant in person. When reaching summary judgment, it was remarked by Hope LJ that:

“If the words or gestures are accompanied in their turn by gestures or by words which threaten immediate and unlawful violence, that will be sufficient for an assault. The words or gestures must be seen in their whole context.”

(iii) False Imprisonment
While reminiscent of physical imposition, this tortious facet involves the restriction of liberty and movement of an individual. As many might expect, there are cases where over extension of a prison sentence will suffice, however mere isolation or deprivation of escape will also apply. It is important to note that while the victim may only fear these actions yet not necessarily fall subject to their physical consequences, psychological harm, where proven, will suffice under a claim. Unlike the tort of negligence, trespass to the person relies upon intention, actual harm and obvious effect, and so victims are compensated not for unintentional damage, but that caused with deliberation.

Trespass to land
Similarly, trespass to land addresses deliberate actions by those subject to it, while primary focus is placed upon the protection and preservation of land or property. Harm is treated as one stemming from interference with a right to privacy and occupation, and so while possession of the land is imperative to a successful claim, there are, as with trespass to the person, four distinct categories of interference, namely (i) crossing a boundary, (i) remaining on land, (iii) exceeding permissions associated with land and (iv) placing objects upon land without express consent of the owner.

(i) Crossing boundaries
Undoubtedly the more common complaint is one of boundary violation, and while often focussed upon overgrown foliage or other such matters, there are also incidents where property intrudes into the airspace of land, such as in Anchor Brewhouse Developments Ltd v Berkley House (Dockland Developments) Ltd where a contractor’s crane overswung into a neighbouring property, thus prompting a supported claim for trespass through ‘airspace’.

(ii) Remaining on land
In Jones v Persons Unknown, the freeholders of unregistered land were forced to serve eviction notices after a group of ‘fracking’ protestors set up residence and refused to leave. While claiming to be protecting the land on which they had become entrenched, the defendants were ultimately evicted under the award of a possession order on grounds of trespass. When outlying the justification for the order, the judge remarked:

“[T]here is simply no evidence that they gave any relevant consent to the occupation of their land which would preclude the claimants from seeking to recover it back…he was in unlawful possession of the claimants’ land, and thus amenable to a claim in trespass and the costs associated with such a claim. It would be to allow him, and others in a similar position, effectively to get away with acts of trespass if they were not required to pay the costs of consequent legal proceedings.”

(iii) Exceeding permissions (trespass ab initio)
When a party enters owned land under agreement, but then proceeds to potentially outstay that welcome through unlawful or abusive actions, the owner is entitled to claim trespass from the point at which the visitor caused offence. In a case called The Six Carpenters, a number of carpenters entered an inn before ordering and paying for wine and bread; however things took a turn for the worse when after ordering more wine they refused to pay for it; thus instigating a unsuccessful claim for trespass damages by the landlord when the court held:

“[F]or not paying for the wine, the defendants shall not be trespassers, for the denying to pay for it is no trespass, and therefore they cannot be trespassers ab initio…”

(iv) Placing objects
In Arthur v Anker, the deliberate placement of an oil tanker and flower pots along a boundary wall caused tensions between neighbours, until a claim for trespass led to an injunction to remove the objects, despite several months between their placement and the litigation. In surmising the judgment, Aldous J emphasised that:

“[T]here is no evidence that such inaction in respect of the oil tank, or any inaction in respect of the flower pots, caused Mr. Stones to believe that he could maintain the tank on the wall situated as it is…He placed the tank upon the wall himself and in my view it could not be seriously suggested that there was detriment in not objecting immediately and now requiring him to remove it.”

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).