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Tort XXXIV - Remoteness III

Updated on June 24, 2017

In Crossley v Rawlinson (1981) we once again examine the duty that is owed to a rescuer. The defendant was driving a lorry and while he was on the road a tarpaulin on the back of the lorry caught fire. At the time, the defendant was about 100 meters away from an AA station and an AA patrolman caught sight of the fire. The patrolman grabbed a fire extinguisher and rushed to the rescue but he stepped in a pothole and fell and as a result sustained injuries. The plaintiff sued.

The court held that while it was foreseeable that the fire would prompt a rescuer to come to the aid of the defendant it was unforeseeable that the rescuer would step in a pothole, trip, fall and sustain some form of injury. The court held that the damage was too remote and the plaintiff was unable to claim.

Would the plaintiff have been successful if he’d brought an action against the council whose duty it was to maintain the roads instead of the defendant? As per the decisions in Stovin v Wise (1996) and Gorringe v Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council (2004) the chances are that the council would not have been held liable but if the plaintiff had fallen into a manhole that was left open because of the negligence of council workers then the plaintiff would most likely be entitled to claim see Hughes v Lord Advocate (1963). Likewise, if the plaintiff had stepped into a hole that was left uncovered after works were done, the plaintiff would also be entitled to claim see Haley v London Electricity Board (1965).

In Ward v Cannock Chase DC (1985) the plaintiff owned a terraced house adjoining a row of terraced houses and some land adjoining the terraced house. As a result of a change in council policy the area was industrialized and many of the terraced houses were vacated and left empty.

The houses were subsequently broken into by vandals and the building materials that were used to construct the houses like tiles were stolen and the condition of the houses deteriorated with time.

Because of continued vandalism the rear wall of the house adjoining the plaintiff’s house collapsed causing damage to the roof of the plaintiff’s house. The council rehoused the plaintiff without repairing the roof of the plaintiff’s house and while the plaintiff was away, thieves broke into the plaintiff’s house and stole items belonging to the plaintiff. The plaintiff sued and the council admitted negligence.

The question before the court was to determine the scope of the council’s liability. The court held that it was foreseeable that the damage to the adjoining house would cause some damage to the plaintiff’s house and therefore the plaintiff was entitled to be compensated accordingly. However, the plaintiff also had a responsibility to secure his chattels and belongings and his failure to do so negated the council’s liability and hence the council was not liable for the items that were stolen and was only liable for damage caused to the house.

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 Fitzgerald v Lane (1987) the plaintiff was walking down a pelican crossing when the light for pedestrians turned red. He was hit by the first defendant’s car and thrown on to the path of the second defendant’s car. The plaintiff suffered severe injuries especially to the neck resulting in partial tetraplegia. Because it was impossible to determine which of the defendants caused the injury an action was brought against both defendants.

It was held that because it was impossible to determine which of the defendants had caused the injury, the defendants were jointly liable. The damages were however reduced by one third in line with s1(1) of the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945 - Where any person suffers damage as the result partly of his own fault and partly of the fault of any other person or persons, a claim in respect of that damage shall not be defeated by reason of the fault of the person suffering the damage, but the damages recoverable in respect thereof shall be reduced to such extent as the court thinks just and equitable having regard to the claimant’s share in the responsibility for the damage. Both the defendants were required to pay one third each as compensation for the injury suffered by the plaintiff.

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