UK: Court Finds Occupiers Liable For Assisting Workmen

Estate of Cyril Biddick (Deceased) v Mark Morcom [2014] EWCA Civ 182


Mr Biddick was an 80 year old homeowner. The Claimant, a multi-skilled tradesman, had known the Defendant for a long period of time and had undertaken work for him on several occasions. Sometimes he was paid for his work, and sometimes he undertook it on a voluntary basis.

On the day of the accident, the Claimant had agreed to fit insulation to the hatch which provided entry into Mr Biddick's loft.

The hatch opened by being pulled downwards with a long pole which had a hook that fitted into a locking mechanism. It was possible to open and close the locking mechanism by means of simply turning the pole.

Although the Claimant did not think that he needed any assistance, Mr Biddick indicated that he would stand underneath the hatch holding the locking mechanism in place with the pole, as he was worried that a vibration from the Claimant's drill might be sufficient to cause the locking mechanism to work itself loose.

However, whilst holding the pole, Mr Biddick received a phone call and went to answer the phone. The Claimant overreached himself, applying a degree of force to the hatch door. The hatch door burst open and the Claimant fell through to the floor below sustaining serious injury.

The Claimant sued in common law/negligence and for breach of the Work at Height Regulations 2005.


The Court found that the 2005 Regulation did not apply, but decided that the accident occurred because Mr Biddick, when taking the telephone call, had partially dislodged the locking mechanism and that this was a material cause of the Claimant's accident, and was negligent.

Accordingly, he was found to be liable but the Claimant's damages were reduced by 2/3rds for contributory negligence.

As the Court noted, had Mr Biddick not chosen to involve himself in the operation, there would have been no basis at all to make any finding of negligence against him, but having voluntarily involved himself, he brought himself into sufficient proximity with the Claimant so that it was fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty on him.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the finding of liability and of contributory negligence.

The Defendant had relied, in particular, upon the speech of Lord Hoffman in Tomlinson v Congleton BC [2004] 1AC 46 and in which stated it would ordinarily be extremely rare for an occupier of land to be under to a duty to prevent people from taking risks which are inherent in the activities they freely chose to undertake.

The Court of Appeal however distinguished Tomlinson on the basis that the Defendant in that case had not chosen to participate in any way in the activity being undertaken by the Claimant whereas here, the Defendant had assumed responsibility to ensure that the latch on the loft hatch remained closed.

Once the Defendant had undertaken to ensure that the hatch remained closed, he had a duty to perform that task carefully, even if the Claimant did not himself see the Defendant's role as a necessary one in his own safety.

It will be interesting to see if the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill (the so called 'Good Samaritan' law) recently proposed by the Government will extend to cover instances such as this. As the law currently stand Mr Biddick would have been well advised to have offered no further assistance than the odd cup of tea!

Key points for defendants

  • This case highlights the potential difference in outcome between failing to act and acting in a negligent way. An occupier can go too far to ensure a visitor's safety. Had the workman been left alone, no liability would have attached to the occupier
  • It was found that the locking mechanism was only partially secure when the workman fell. Had the occupier's involvement not been related to the cause of the fall, it is not likely that liability would have attached. Causation is therefore still an important factor
  • The Court of Appeal upheld an assessment of 2/3rds contributory negligence, which is encouraging for Defendants

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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