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Tort XXIII - Causation IX

Updated on August 22, 2017

In John Munroe (Acrylics) Ltd v London Fire and Civil Defense Authority (1997) the fire brigade was called in to put out a fire on an adjoining property. The firemen inspected the area and once they’d finished they left the scene believing that the fire had been put out but failed to take note of some soldering debris. Once they had left, the fire started again and spread to the plaintiff’s property and caused damaged to his property. The plaintiff sued but was unsuccessful

The court held that there was no duty owed. The standard of care that is imposed on the fire brigade is similar to that which is owed by the police and applying the principle in Hill v Chief Constable of Yorkshire (1989) the court found that imposing a duty under the circumstances would impede the fire brigade and would not allow them to carry out their duties efficiently. It would lead to defensive firefighting in that firemen would be more concerned or may become preoccupied with the liabilities that may be imposed on them rather than firefighting.

McFarlane v EE Caledonia Ltd (1997) allows us to further examine the duty that is owed to a rescuer. It concerns the Piper Alpha disaster which is the worst offshore oil rig disaster to date. In a space of 2 hours 167 men lost their lives while 61 others survived by jumping into the sea from the helicopter platform.

The plaintiff was employed to work on the oil rig (Piper Alpha) but at the time of the accident he was onboard another vessel which was anchored close by. The vessel, the plaintiff was on, went to help with the rescuing operations and the plaintiff was clearly able to see everything that transpired. He was certainly close enough.

The plaintiff claimed that he had succumbed to a psychiatric illness after witnessing the disaster and its aftermath. The court held that the plaintiff could not recover for psychiatric illness because he wasn’t in any danger.

Let’s compare the decision in McFarlane v EE Caledonia Ltd (1997) with the decision in Chadwick v British Railways Board (1967); in the latter (Chadwick v British Railways Board (1967)) the plaintiff was at the scene of the incident. In the former (McFarlane v EE Caledonia Ltd (1997)) the plaintiff, while he could witness the incident, was a safe distance away. We have to keep in mind that the duty that we are referring to here is that which is owed to a rescuer and not that which is owed to someone who witnessed the aftermath of an accident or an innocent bystander like in the case of Bourhill v Young (1943) and the series of cases that followed it. With regards to a rescuer it would be safe to say that in order for the courts to impose a duty the rescuer must be at the scene of the accident or the incident.

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 was applied i.e. – where the act is illegal, a legal remedy is not available.

In Harris v Evans (1998), the plaintiffs were operating a bungee jump, which was quite popular at the time. The participations stood on a platform which was lifted by a crane to a certain height often above a river with their feet bound and attached to a bungee rope. Once the platform was in place, the participants would walk off the platform and fall straight into the river.

A health and safety inspector inspected the jump and came to the conclusion that it was unsafe and thereby instructed the operators to terminate all future jumps. The operators, the plaintiffs, sued for loss of income.

The plaintiffs were unsuccessful. The plaintiff was suing for pure economic loss. In line with the decision in Spartan Steel & Alloys Ltd v Martin (1972) and Caparo v Dickman (1990) the courts are reluctant to allow damages for pure economic loss.

Furthermore in Harris v Evans (1998) the defendant was merely doing his duty as he was employed to do and he was empowered to do so by statute. Therefore there should be no liability imposed on the defendant.

© 2017 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward

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