Key Negligence Case Law

The key to any negligence claim (as it is rooted in the common law), is to cite key authorities when bringing your claim. It is crucial that you seek legal advice at the outset of your matter. In our experience it is much more persuasive when lawyers send a letter before claim outlining key authorities related to the facts of your case.

The following is a guide to key UK judicial authority on tort law cases. The tort of negligence is deeply rooted in the common law and in decided cases. Our key to success as a professional negligence litigation practice is an understanding of the key case law comprising the judicial landscape. Tort is an evolving area with the courts developing tests to establish whether a duty of care exists, the definition of breach and the ambit of foreseeability and causation. Please click the case citations below to download a full transcript of the relevant case.

Please note that the information published on this website is: (a) for reference purposes only; (b) does not create a contractual relationship; (c) does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such; and (d) is not a complete or authoritative statement of the law. Specific legal advice about your particular circumstances should always be sought.

1. Duty of Care: Landmark cases summarised

Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562

Mrs Donoghue went to a cafe with a friend who bought her ice cream and a bottle of ginger beer. The ginger beer contained a decomposed snail. Mrs Donoghue suffered from personal injury due to this and proceeded to claim against the manufacturer which was successful and resulted in the establishment of the modern law of negligence and the neighbour test.

David Topp v London County Bus (South West) Limited [1993] EWCA Civ 15

A driver of a mini bus did not turn up to his shift. The mini bus was then stolen and the thieves proceeded to assault a woman by knocking her off her bicycle (she subsequently died from her injuries). The husband of the woman claimed that the bus company owed a duty of care, however it was found they did not owe a duty of care towards a third party.

Home Office v Dorset Yacht Co Ltd [1970] AC 1004

Borstal officers were required to supervise young offenders who were working on Brown Sea Island, however the officers left the boys unsupervised. Several of the young offenders then stole a boat and crashed it into the yacht of the Claimant. It was found the Home Office owed a duty of care as they were in a position of control over the 3rd party who caused the damage which was considered foreseeable by the court.

Bourhill v Young [1943] AC 92

The Claimant was pregnant and disembarked a tram, the defendant then got into a car accident on his motorbike 50 feet away and was killed on impact. The Claimant, a short time later proceeded to walk past where the incident had taken place and saw a large amount of blood where the incident had taken place, causing her to go into shock and her baby was still born. She brought a negligence claim against the Defendant’s estate however no duty of care was owed by the Defendant to the Claimant.

Anns v Merton London Borough Council [1978] AC 728

While building a block of flats the foundations were made 2ft 6in deep instead of the required 3ft deep. This significant error caused the flats to have structural issues. Tenants of the block of flats claimed the Council was responsible for inspecting the foundations during construction. The House of Lords (the predecessor to the Supreme Court) held that the Council did owe a duty of care to ensure the foundations were at the correct depth.

Caparo Industries Plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605

Caparo Industries purchased shares in Fidelity Plc with faith they would be successful as the accounts that the company stated showed the company had made a pre-tax profit of £1.3 million. However these accounts were not correct and in reality Fidelity had made a loss of £400,000. Caparo claimed Fidelity was negligent, however no duty of care was owed due to the insufficient proximity between Caparo and Fidelity. Caparo v Dickman is a key authority to cite when making submissions about proximity (which tends to be an argument raised by defendants in many negligence proceedings).

Murphy v Brentwood District Council [1991] AC 398

The Defendant (a local authority) approved plans for a property. The claimant bought the property, which began to decline as a result of defects in the plans. The claimant was unable to afford the required repairs and was forced to sell the property at a loss. In this case, the Court refused to follow its previous ruling in Anns v Merton London Borough Council [1978] AC 728, finding that the damage suffered by the Claimant could not be considered material or physical, but purely economic. The Defendant was not found to be liable.

2. Breach of Duty: key case law summary

Condon v Basi [1985] 1 WLR 866

During a football match the Claimant suffered a broken leg after a challenge from the defendant. Both clubs involved were in the Leamington Local League. The Court’s question was as to the standard of care expected from a football player. The Court held that the standard of care varies according to the level of expertise of the player. The Defendant was in breach of duty as the tackle was considered reckless.

Blake v Galloway [2004] 3 All ER 315

The Claimant (a fifteen year old boy), was with friends when he threw a piece of tree bark at his friend’s leg, the friend then threw the bark back at him, which consequently hit him in the eye causing serious injury. The Claimant contended that the injury was brought about by the negligence of the Defendant. The volenti non fit injuria defence was then raised by the Defendant however this was rejected and the judge held that the damages should be reduced by 50%.

Hilsher v Essex [1988] 1 AC 1074

A premature baby was given too much oxygen by a junior doctor. The baby was found to suffer from a condition damaging his retina which left him completely blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. The excess oxygen could have been the cause of the impairment of his retina however other factors relating to the premature birth also could have been the cause. The judge found the Health Authority liable for negligence.

Nettleship v Weston [1971] 3 WLR 370

The Defendant was a learner driver. She was taking lessons from a friend who checked that the Defendant’s insurance covered for her to be a passenger in the car. During a trip in the car the Defendant hit a lamp post and subsequently fractured the Claimant’s knee. The Defendant raised that as a learner driver her responsibility for standard of care should be lowered however this was not held but damages were reduced by 50%.

Bolam v Friern [1957] 1 W.L.R. 583, 587

A two year old child suffering from severe breathing difficulties was admitted to hospital. During this time it was attempted to call an emergency doctor however her pager was not working due to low battery. The child died and the mother then brought up a claim that the doctor should have attended to the child which would have saved the child’s life. Evidence was given both by the doctor in question and another doctor showing that the child’s life would not have been saved if the doctor attended to the child. The judge held that there was no breach of duty. The Bolam test has subsequently become key case authority for the principle that although the law imposes a duty of care between a doctor and his patient, the standard of that care is a matter of medical judgement.

Bolam v Friern Hospital Management Committee [1957] 1 WLR 582

The Claimant, a mentally-ill patient, was failed to be restrained or given muscle-relaxant drugs prior to electro-convulsive therapy, which resulted in personal injury. The Claimant sought compensation from the Defendant, Friern Hospital Management Committee, who employed the medical staff involved. In the judgement, it was found that the Defendant was not liable. McNair J set out what is commonly referred to as the ‘Bolam Test’, which is used to determine the standard of care owed by medical professionals to patients. It was established that a professional will not be in breach of their duty of care if they acted in accordance with accepted practice of medical professionals with similar expertise. The ‘Bolam test’ has subsequently become key case authority for the principle that although the law imposes a duty of care between a doctor and his patient, the standard of care is a matter of medical judgement.

Bolitho v City and Hackney Health Authority [1998] AC 232

A two year old child suffering from severe breathing difficulties was admitted to hospital. During this time it was attempted to call an emergency doctor, however her pager was not working due to low battery. The child died and the mother then brought up a claim that the doctor should have attended to the child which would have saved the child’s life. Evidence was given both by the doctor in question and another doctor showing that the child’s life would not have been saved if the doctor attended to the child. The doctor stated that even if they had attended, the child would not have been intubated. The Bolam test was applied and further clarified, noting that the accepted practice of professionals in the field must be logical. In the present case, refusing intubation was not illogical and therefore the Court found the Defendant not in breach.

Hall v Brooklands Auto-Racing Club [1933] 1 KB 205

The Defendants were the owners of a racing track, to which spectators were admitted. During a race, two cars were involved in a collision which hit a group of spectators, killing two of them. The Claimant accused the Defendants of failing to ensure adequate safety measures for spectators. The Court found that the Defendants were under an obligation to ensure safety up to a reasonable standard; however such duty did not extend to that considered to be beyond reasonable foreseeability. Thus, as such event had never occurred in the history of the Defendant’s business, this was not considered as reasonably foreseeable. As such, no liability was found on the part of the Defendants.

Bolton v Stone [1951] AC 850

The Claimant was injured by a cricket ball from a nearby cricket field. Although cricket balls had previously flown into neighbours gardens, this was a rare occurrence. The Claimant claimed against the cricket club. The House of Lords found that the cricket club was not in breach, taking account of the likelihood of harm, the practicality of relevant precautions such as cost and effort and the social value of the activity. It was found that alongside the likelihood of harm being very low given the rarity of the occurrence, building a fence any higher than had already been put in place would not have been practical.

Haley v London Electricity Board [1965] AC 778

The Defendant’s employees were carrying out maintenance work on a pavement. They later realised that they did not have the necessary materials to cover the work whilst on their break and in response placed a shovel in the hole to warn pedestrians of the presence of the work. The Claimant, who was blind, sustained injuries after falling into the hole. In their judgement, the Court focused on the extent to which harm was a foreseeable consequence of the actions of the Defendants. In the present case, it was found to be reasonably foreseeable that a disabled person would be at risk of harm from the Defendants actions. The Court found the Defendant to be in breach of their duty of care.

3. Causation: Famous Case Law summarised

Chester v Afshar [2004] 3 WLR 927

The Claimant suffered back pain for 6 years which became severe to the point at times she was unable to control her bladder or walk. After an MRI scan it was was reveled that there was a disk protrusion into the spinal column and she was therefore advised to have surgery. The surgery carried a 1-2% risk that the procedure could worsen the Claimant’s back pain further. Her consultant, Mr Afshar, failed to warn of the risks of the surgery. The Claimant submitted that if she knew of the risk she may not have gone ahead with the surgery and would have at least taken more time to consider her decision. The judge held that there was a possibility on another occasion the surgery may have been successful, therefore he found for the Claimant.

Performance Cars Ltd v Abraham [1962] 1 QB 33

The Claimant’s car, a silver Rolls Royce, was hit by the Defendant who admitted to breach of duty. Two weeks prior to this incident the Claimant had been in a previous incident with another negligent driver. The Claimant claimed for a respray of the car (£75) however, the Claimant was yet to receive the sum. The Claimant then tried to claim for the second incident however it was conceded the Claimant could not recover the same loss twice. The judge held the first defendant was responsible for the whole amount therefore the Defendant was absolved from liability to pay.

Baker v Willoughby [1970] AC 467

The Claimant was hit by the Defendant’s car causing him to suffer an injury to his leg. He suffered pain and loss of amenity and therefore had to take a lower paying job. He was forced to discontinue various employments as a result of his injury and then sustained further injury when working in a scrap metal yard. Furthermore he also got shot in the leg when two men attempted to mug him finally leading to the leg being amputated. The Defendant argued that the second injury was the cause of the amputation and therefore no loss suffered can be attributed to the defendant’s negligence. The House of Lords held that the Defendant remained liable for the loss of amenity and lowering earning capability even following the amputation.

Jobling v Associated Dairies [1982] AC 794

Mr Jobling, a butcher, slipped on the floor at work and injured his back, due to negligence from his employer. His injury reduced his capacity to earn by 50%. Baker then went on to be unable to work completely when developing a back condition independent to his previous injury. The trial judge held that the Claimant was entitled to recover damages beyond the onset to the back condition.

Bonnington Castings Ltd v Wardlaw [1956]

During the course of his employment the Claimant developed pneumoconiosis by inhaling air which contained minute particles of silica. The Defendant was in breach of statutory duty in failing to provide an extractor fan. If the extractor fan had been installed the Claimant would have been exposed to fewer silica particles in the air. The Defendant was unable to prove that the Claimant would have developed pneumoconiosis even if the fan was installed therefore the Defendant was held liable.

McGhee v National Coal Board [1973]

The Claimant worked in the Defendant’s brick works, a hot and dusty environment. The Defendant was in breach of duty for not providing washing and showering facilities, therefore the Claimant had to cycle home still covered in brick dust. The Claimant then acquired dermatitis. The cause of the dermatitis was put down to two possible causes, either the dust he was exposed to during his working hours, which was not a breach of duty, or the dust he was exposed to on his cycle home, which was a breach. The Claimant had to demonstrate that the dust he was exposed to on the cycle home increased the risk of him contracting dermatitis.

Fitzgerald v Lane [1989] 1 AC 328

The Claimant walked across a pelican crossing when the lights were red when he was hit by the First Defendant and fell into the path of the Second Defendant. He consequentially suffered from tetraplegia, however was unable to confirm which impact caused the tetraplegia. The judge held that all three were equally at fault with both defendants paying insufficient attention to the road. Damages were held at £596,553 and ordered the two Defendants to pay one third of that amount.

Cork v Kirby MacLean Ltd [1952] 2 All ER 402

The Claimant in this case died after having an epileptic seizure whilst working on a platform with no railings. The Defendant, the Claimant’s employers, were unaware of the claimant’s condition. The Court stated that if the harm would have occurred anyway even in the absence of breach, the breach could not be considered to have caused the harm in question. In the present case, the Court found that had railings been in place, the Claimant would not have fallen off the platform during the seizure. The Defendant was therefore found to be liable.

Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington Management Committee [1956] AC 613

The Claimant came to hospital after suffering from stomach pain and vomiting. The nurse on duty spoke to a doctor who told them to send the Claimant home. Shortly after, the claimant died from arsenic poisoning, however it was established that regardless of whether the claimant had seen the doctor, they would still have died from arsenic poisoning and thus no factual causation was found.

4. Damage/ Loss: Landmark cases

Hughes v Lord Advocate [1963] AC 837

Two boys, aged 8 and 10, decided to explore an unattended manhole that had been left by workmen. The manhole was covered by a tent and surrounded by some paraffin lamps with the intention to warn of the danger. The boys took a lamp down the hole and created an explosion resulting in extensive burns. It was held that the explosion was unforeseeable however the burns the boys suffered was foreseeable.

Doughty v Turner Manufacturing Company [1964] 1 QB 518

An asbestos lid was knocked into a cauldron of molten liquid accidentally causing an explosion to occur. The Claimant suffered burns from the explosion. At the time of the explosion it was not known that the asbestos would react in that way. It was held that the explosion was not foreseeable, so therefore it was not foreseeable that the Claimant would have suffered from the burns.

Jebson v Ministry of Defence [2000] EWCA Civ 198

The Claimant (who was a soldier) suffered severe injuries after a night out drinking organised by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and army vehicle was used to transport the 19 soldiers who were very drunk. The senior officer in the front of the vehicle was unable to see what was going on in the back of the vehicle. The Claimant then attempted to climb from the tailgate to the roof however fell and was struck by a truck. It was held that it was foreseeable that the drunk men in the truck were more likely to suffer from an injury, however it was not foreseeable that the Claimant would climb onto the roof.

   Jolley v Sutton [2000] 1 WLR 1082

Two fourteen year old boys found an abandoned boat and decided to refurbish it. The boat was rotten and the council had put a warning on the boat, not to touch it and the owner needed to move it within 7 days however it was never taken away. The boys began working on the boat however after 6 weeks of working on the boat it fell on one of the boys causing the boy to become paraplegic. The Claimant issued a claim under the Occupiers Liability Act 1984. The trial judge found for the Claimant however the Court of Appeal reversed the decision, and held that it was foreseeable that younger children may play on the boat and suffer injury however it was not foreseeable that the older boys would refurbish the boat.

Corr v IBC Vehicles Ltd [2008] 2WLR 499

Following the death or her husband, a widow brought a claim against the Defendant under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 for the death or her husband. The Defendant employed the husband and as a result of negligence he sustained an injury to his lip which contained pre-cancerous cells. The cells were triggered by the injury and three years later the man died from cancer. The judge held that the burn was foreseeable and that the defendant was liable for his death.

5. Vicarious Liability

Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets Plc [2016] UKSC 11

An employee of Morrison supermarkets, Mr Khan, who worked in the kiosk at the supermarket’s petrol station, committed a brutal and unprovoked attack on a customer, Mr Mohamud. Mr Khan had responded to an inquiry by Mr Mohamud as to whether it was possible to print some documents by ordering Mr Mohamud to leave the shop, and using threatening and racist language. He had then followed Mr Mohamud to his car, told him never to come back and punched and kicked him. The Supreme Court held the supermarket vicariously liable for the employee’s unprovoked violent assault on a customer.

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