UK: Focus On Causation

Last Updated: 20 July 2012
Article by Katrina Rea

There have been some recent Court of Appeal decisions highlighting the need to consider the issue of causation in detail even in cases where breach of duty can be established.

The case of Sutton v Syston Rugby Club [2011] EWCA Civ 1182 considered the duty of care owed by a rugby club to inspect the pitch prior to a practice session.

At first instance the club was held liable for personal injury sustained by a player when he injured his knee having fallen on a broken cricket boundary marker submerged in the ground. The judge found that the club should have conducted a walked inspection of the pitch and, whilst not required to investigate underneath every blade of grass, a slightly more careful degree of attention needed to be paid to the touch down ends where players were expected to dive or fall onto the ground. A more careful inspection would have discovered the hazard.

The club appealed on the basis that the duty of care imposed was too high; a "reasonable walk over the pitch" was sufficient but in any event even if a more detailed inspection had taken place it would not have revealed the stump as it was not visible beneath the grass.

The Court of Appeal noted that it was for the claimant to prove that a defendant's breach of duty caused the loss for which he claimed. On the facts of this case, the court found for the defendant rugby club, ruling that the judge at first instance had placed too high a duty on the club to pay a more careful degree of attention to the touch down ends and that a "reasonable walk over of the pitch" was sufficient. The court was keen not to place too high a burden on ordinary coaches and match organisers given that games of rugby are a desirable activity within S1 of the Compensation Act 2006, but in any event the Court of Appeal considered the claimant could not prove that a reasonable walk over of the pitch would, on the balance of probabilities, have revealed the stub's existence.

The decision in Harlow v Peterborough City Council (2011), an employers' liability claim, is less helpful to defendants. The claimant was a teacher at a secure facility for women operated by the local council. She was due to teach a class of three in a secure locked class room. Policy stated that staff should not be alone with more than two women. The claimant usually had a teaching assistant who was running late that day. Shortly before the class was due to start two escorts brought a woman into the class and both left. The claimant did not realise they had both left until the door was locked and she had been left alone with three women. She therefore went to fetch another member of staff. In her haste to leave the room she tripped on her chair and fell sustaining injury. The council argued that the accident was not reasonably foreseeable as she was not injured as a result of the threat of violence or actual violence; her own actions had broken the chain of causation.

The court at first instance held that breach of duty had been established as the claimant had been left alone with three women contrary to policy. The known source of danger had been the women. The claimant was therefore at a foreseeable risk of injury. The council conceded she had acted appropriately in going to seek another member of staff. Although the injury did not occur in the most likely manner, her injuries were still sufficiently envisaged to be caused by the breach of duty and so liability was established.

Key points for defendants

  • If it is likely breach of duty will be established, consider whether the accident would have been prevented had the defendant complied with the duty
  • Where a breach of duty causes a foreseeable risk of injury, even if the foreseeable incident did not occur, liability may be established where the claimant's injury was caused trying to avoid this risk
  • Remember it is for the claimant to prove that a breach of duty caused the injury sustained; therefore do not concede this point too early
  • Although pure causation defences are often considered the last refuge for the desperate defendant, such defences can succeed in the right case
  • When making any admissions be careful to consider how these are worded. It is important to clarify whether an admission of a breach of duty is subject not only to medical causation but also whether the breach caused the incident complained of

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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