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Tort XX - Causation VI

Updated on June 7, 2017

The decision in Kirkham v Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police (1990) must be compared with the decision in Knight v Home Office (1990). The case concerns a 21-year-old boy who had suicidal tendencies and was imprisoned. The prison authorities were aware of his condition and the authorities kept a constant watch on the boy at regular intervals. Despite the precautions that were taken the boy committed suicide and his parents sued.

It was held that the prison authorities had taken relevant care by ensuring that the boy was kept under frequent watch. A prison however was not a hospital for the psychiatrically ill and the plaintiff could not expect the same level of care as one would expect from a hospital. The prison authorities were only required to exercise the level of care that was required for a prison and the prison authorities in this instance were deemed to have done just that. The plaintiff was unsuccessful.

In Hale v London Underground Ltd (1993), the case concerns a firefighter who had gone over and above his duty by repeatedly returning to the scene of the King’s Cross fire. The plaintiff was awarded a medal for bravery and though he did not suffer any physical injury from being continuously exposed to the fire and its aftermath he did suffer from post-traumatic stress. The plaintiff brought an action to recover for psychiatric illness caused by the defendants’ negligence and was successful. He was awarded damages in lieu of his illness.

In Alexandrou v Oxford (1993) we once again examine the scope of duty that is owed by a member of the police force to the public. The defendant let a burglar escape after the alarm in a retail store went off. The plaintiff, the owner of the shop brought an action against the police for letting the burglar escape. The court in line with all the previous cases we have looked at with regards to the duty owed by the police held that the defendant was not liable. The decision of the courts is largely based on public policy and though there may be occasions where mistakes are made, those mistakes are small when compared to the success rate.

In Osman v Ferguson (1993) a teacher developed an unhealthy fascination for a 14-year-old boy and started following him around. It later turned out to be something more sinister than mere infatuation and the teacher was sacked but he continued to persist and began to harass the boy and his family and at one stage even threatened to kill the boy and anyone else who came in his way - he even admitted that he couldn’t stop himself. The matter was reported to the police but no action was taken and finally the teacher shot the boy and his father. The boy survived but his father didn’t. The plaintiff, the boy’s mother brought an action against the police.

The court in line with Hill v Chief Constable for West Yorkshire (1988) held that the police did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care. While it was foreseeable that some harm might occur as a result of the teacher’s improper actions, for reasons of public policy, a duty could not be imposed on the police. It is difficult to ask of the police to keep the boy under 24-hour surveillance because the police lacked the resources.

Would the boy’s family, given the seriousness of the threat have been able to use the services of a private agency? The answer in short, as long as the courts allow it, is yes, but these services are not cheap and therefore it is a matter of if the family can afford it.

A similar rule applies to missing children. As long as the law permits it, the parents are allowed to use any means at their disposal to recover their child. When it comes to private agencies, it is a matter of costs and it depends on how much the parents can afford to pay.

In Smith v Cribben (1994) the plaintiff tried to overtake the defendant on the motorway and the defendant continued driving at the speed he was driving at. The plaintiff was unsuccessful in overtaking the defendant but continued to persist and as a result crashed into a tree. The plaintiff sued.

The court held that the defendant was not under a duty to give way to the plaintiff and was entitled to continue driving at the speed he was driving at as long as it was within the limits imposed by the law. The plaintiff was unsuccessful.


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