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Tort XXIV - Causation X

Updated on June 11, 2017

In Langley v Dray (1998) the defendant was driving a stolen car and while he was on the motorway, he was spotted by a policeman. The plaintiff, the policeman, gave chase and the defendant stepped on the accelerator. A motorway speed chase ensued. The policeman subsequently lost control of his car and there was an accident. The plaintiff sued.

In line with the decision with Haynes v Harwood (1935) the court found in favor of the policeman. Let’s apply the duty, breach and causation requirements.

The standard that is imposed on any driver is that of the reasonable and competent driver or road-user and this standard applies even if the driver is a learner-driver see Nettleship v Weston (1971) and it is regardless of whether the defendant is ill or is struck by a sudden illness see Roberts v Ramsbottom (1980). Hence there was a duty of care owed in that the defendant had to exercise the care of a reasonable and competent driver.

The test that is to be applied is the objective test or that of the man on the Clapham omnibus see Hall v Brooklands Auto Racing Club (1933). The question that is to be asked is would a reasonable man have acted in the manner that the defendant did under the circumstances? The answer would invariably be no and therefore the defendant had breached his duty of care.

The next question that is to be asked is would the plaintiff have been injured “but for” the defendant’s act see Barnett v Chelsea Hospital Management Committee (1969) and it can be said with some certainty that if it wasn’t for the defendant’s negligent act, the plaintiff would not have been injured and accordingly the defendant was held to be liable.

In Leach v Chief Constable of Gloucester (1998), the case is with regards to the notorious serial killer Fred West, who committed at least 12 murders from 1967 to 1987. The plaintiff, a volunteer, agreed to act as an appropriate adult (an appropriate adult is someone who is responsible for safeguarding the rights of children or the mentally vulnerable who have been detained by the police – Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984). At the time she volunteered she had no knowledge of who the defendant was or of the nature of the crimes he had committed so it is fair to say that the plaintiff was caught off-guard.

All the previous cases the plaintiff had worked on were in relation to youths who had been detained by the police for some reason or other and she didn’t have any experience with anyone who suffered from a mental illness. The plaintiff accompanied the accused and spent a substantial amount of time with him including following him to the crime scenes – which is something that can be very distressful for most adults and it would take someone with strong fortitude to not be affected by what she heard and saw. She subsequently succumbed to a psychiatric illness and sued.

The court in line with Swinney v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police (1996) held that the police owed the defendant a duty of care. The arguments for finding for the plaintiff are more or less the same in both cases. The first question that is to be asked is whether the defendants assumed responsibility for the plaintiff? The answer is in the affirmative and the voluntary undertaking of responsibility arose the moment the police put or placed the plaintiff in a stressful situation or in a situation where she would most likely incur some form of psychiatric illness or other.

It was foreseeable that by being put in the position that she was, the plaintiff would incur some form of injury – the court did not draw a distinction between the type of injury, physical or psychiatric. All that was required was that some form of injury was incurred.

Secondly, while the court did not say so, for public policy reasons the plaintiff should be awarded some form of compensation because appropriate adults play an important role in ensuring that the rights of youth and the mentally vulnerable are upheld.

In Perrett v Collins (1998) the defendants built a plane and the plane crashed as a result of which the plaintiff was injured. Prior to the plane being allowed to fly it had to be approved by the relevant authority i.e. the inspector and the certifying body. The plaintiff sued on the grounds that the inspector and certifying body had been negligent in their assessment and had allowed a plane that had not fully complied with the mandatory requirements to fly. The plaintiff was successful.

It was held the inspector and the certifying body were under a duty to ensure that the stipulated requirements or regulations were complied with and it was foreseeable that their negligence would lead to some sort of mishap or other.

Let’s compare the decision in Perrett v Collins (1998) with that of Harris v Evans (1998). It is clear that in both cases the defendants had a duty to perform their roles or tasks as stipulated by law, and in the former the defendant was found to be liable while in the latter the defendant was held to be not liable. Yet again a lot depends on the facts but the result of not performing one’s duties in accordance with the required standards may lead to a potentially dangerous situation.

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