Health and Safety Law – Milestone Cases

This new feature looks at important cases that have helped shape Health and Safety law over the years. We will examine both common law and criminal law cases as both have ongoing relevance to businesses in the United Kingdom.

iStock_000016638139SmallDonoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, HL
Mrs. Donoghue suffered injury when she drank the contents of a bottle of ginger beer purchased by a friend which, to her horror, contained a decomposed snail. The bottle was made of dark opaque glass and Mrs. Donoghue had no reason to suspect that it contained anything but pure ginger beer.

Mrs. Donoghue was subsequently ill and tried to sue the manufacturer for breach of contract but was unable to because her friend had purchased the ginger beer.

The House of Lords decided that the manufacturer was liable. Lord Atkin stated as follows: “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

Donoghue v Stevenson is the origin of the modern common law of negligence. It forms the basis of all the current rules relating to employer’s liability at common law for failure to take reasonable care to ensure the health and safety of employees and others not in their employment.

British Railways Board v Herrington [1972] 1 All ER 749
While an occupier does not owe the same duty of care to a trespasser which he owes to a visitor, he owes a trespasser a duty to take such steps as common sense or common humanity would dictate, to exclude or warn or otherwise, within reasonable and practicable limits, reduce or avert a danger.

An electrified railway line owned by the British Railways Board ran through National Trust property, which was open to the public. The fences on each side were in poor condition and in April 1965 children had been seen on the line. A particular part of the fence had clearly been used as a route to cross the railway.

shutterstock_46083805In June 1965 P, aged six, was injured when he stepped onto the line having got through the broken part of the fence. He claimed damages for negligence, and the judge at first instance held that since the emergence of a child from the surrounding land onto the line was reasonably foreseeable, by allowing the fence to fall into and remain in substantial disrepair, the defendants were guilty of negligence.

The Court of Appeal further held that the defendants acted in reckless disregard for the plaintiff’s safety and were in breach of their duty.

This case was a key decision regarding property owners’ duty of care towards trespassers. It paved the way for the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1984 which created a duty of common humanity towards trespassers.

Paris v Stepney Borough Council [1951] 1 All ER 42, HL
Mr Paris worked in the Borough Council’s trucks maintenance garage. He had been blinded in one eye during the Second World War but had successfully managed to conceal this from his employers until he was examined by a doctor for the purposes of the council’s superannuation scheme.

When it came to light that he was blind in one eye he was given two weeks’ notice of dismissal. Two days before he was due to leave he was working underneath one of the council’s gulley cleaning trucks. He was using a hammer to loosen a “U” bolt on the truck’s rear springs when a piece of metal flew off into his good eye, blinding him.

He claimed damages for negligence saying that he, as an individual with extra susceptibility of serious injury, should have been provided with goggles.

The House of Lords upheld his claim. The duty to take reasonable steps by an employer for preventing injury to employees is owed to each employee individually. If an employer knows of a condition in an employee which makes that employee more susceptible to injury, or makes the consequences of injury more severe than usual, he must take extra precautions. In this case, the provision of goggles to Mr Paris would have been reasonable even if no goggles were provided to other men doing the same kind of work.

This case concluded that there is a common law duty of care by employers towards workers with ‘extra susceptibility’ of serious injury which, in these days of ambulance chasing no-win-no-fee claims companies, continues to remain especially relevant.

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