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Tort - Ex Turpi Causa

Updated on June 24, 2017

Ex turpi causa non oritur actio or ex turpi causa for short simply means that when the plaintiff has committed an illegal act, he cannot claim a legal remedy i.e. where the act is illegal a legal remedy is not available. Another way of looking at it is that no man should be allowed to profit from his crime.

In Ashton and Turner (1981) the plaintiff was a passenger in car that the defendant was driving. The pair had jointly committed a burglary and the defendant was drunk at the time. The car they were driving in subsequently crashed and the plaintiff sued. The court held that the principle of ex turpi causa prevented him from claiming.

In Meah v McCreamer (No. 1) (1985) the plaintiff suffered severe head injuries as a result of a road accident caused by the plaintiff’s negligence that subsequently resulted in a change of personality. He became a sexual predator and was eventually convicted of sexually assaulting two women and causing injury to a third. The plaintiff sued the defendant on the grounds that had it not been for the defendant’s negligence the plaintiff would not have undergone the personality change. On the contention that such personality changes were not foreseeable the thin skull rule applied i.e. you take your victim as you find them. The plaintiff was successful.

In Meah v McCreamer (No. 2) (1986) two of the women that the plaintiff had assaulted brought an action to recover from the plaintiff damages for the injuries that they had suffered. The women were successful. The plaintiff subsequently sought to recover the damages from the defendant but the court denied the plaintiff’s claim citing the principle of ex turpi causa - where the act is illegal, a legal remedy is not available.

In Pitt v Hunt (1990) the defendant aged 16 gave the plaintiff aged 18 a ride on his motorbike. The defendant neither had insurance nor had he paid road tax and was on a bike with a much bigger engine than someone his age was allowed to be on. In addition to that both the plaintiff and the defendant were drunk and witnesses gave evidence that they were riding recklessly on the road. There was an accident and the defendant was killed while the plaintiff suffered serious injuries. The plaintiff sued. The court held that there was no duty of care that was owed to the plaintiff by the defendant and the maxim of ex turpi causa prevented a duty of care from arising.

In Kirkham v Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police (1990) the plaintiff was the wife of a prisoner. The prisoner was an alcoholic who suffered from prolonged depression with suicidal tendencies and given his condition there was a real likelihood that he would commit suicide.

The police when they apprehended the prisoner were aware of the facts but failed to pass them on to the prison authorities and the defendant while in prison committed suicide. The plaintiff sued and the defendants relied on the defense of volenti and ex turpi causa.

The plaintiff was successful. The defense of volenti was rejected because it was only applicable to those who did not suffer from any type of psychological or mental illness i.e. those who were sound of mind and ex turpi causa only concerned those who had committed an illegal act and suicide was not illegal (Suicide Act 1961 decriminalized the act of suicide in England and Wales).

If the prison authorities had known that the defendant had suicidal tendencies or was likely to commit suicide, they could have taken steps to ensure that it did not happen for example by putting him in a secure cell or by keeping a closer eye on him. Therefore, it is quite possible to say with some certainty that the prisoner would not have committed suicide but for the defendants’ actions or omissions.

In Clunis v Camden & Islington Health Authority (1998) the plaintiff was detained in a mental hospital prior to release and soon after his release, the plaintiff stabbed a man to death and was convicted for manslaughter. The plaintiff brought an action against the defendants claiming that he shouldn’t have been released from a mental hospital and it was his release that had provoked the stabbing and as a consequence he was now incarcerated and therefore he should be compensated accordingly by the defendants for negligently releasing him. The plaintiff was unsuccessful and the principle of ex turpi causa negated liability.

In Vellino v Chief Constable of Greater Manchester (2002) the plaintiff was a known criminal who had been arrested on numerous occasions. He had a propensity to try and escape but the police failed to take the necessary precautions to prevent him from escaping. The plaintiff was taken into custody and he attempted to escape by jumping off the second floor. He suffered serious injuries to the head, back and neck and sued the police for negligence or for not taking the necessary precautions to prevent him from escaping. Applying the maxim of ex turpi causa the court denied the plaintiff’s claim.

In Gray v Thames Trains (2009) the plaintiff suffered serious injuries in a rail crash but despite that went on to kill another person. The plaintiff was subsequently detained in a facility for the mentally ill and while in detention he brought an action to claim damages for the injuries that he had sustained. The plaintiff’s claim was denied and the maxim of ex turpi causa was applied.

In Joyce v O’Brien & Tradex Insurance (2013) two men after committing a burglary tried to make a getaway in a van. The plaintiff fell off the van while they were trying to escape and sued his uncle, the driver of the van, for negligence. The uncle pleaded guilty to driving dangerously. The plaintiff was unsuccessful. The court held that, given the severity of the offence, the doctrine of ex turpi causa would apply. The plaintiff cannot recover damages for injuries that are a consequence of his own criminal act.

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