When does the consequence of a breach of duty become so difficult to foresee that the chain of causation is broken? The answer to this question following the Court of Appeal’s judgment in the case of Hadlow v Peterborough City Council (20th October 2011, unreported*), is very rarely indeed.
The claimant was a teacher at a secure facility for potentially dangerous women operated by the council. The council’s policy was that teachers should not be alone in a locked room with more than two of the women. The teaching assistant due to attend a class with the claimant was running late. The claimant requested a member of staff attend in the classroom until the assistant arrived. However escorts brought the women to the classroom, locked the door and left. When the claimant realised, she tried to leave the classroom quickly to request an escort to stay. In the process she tripped on her chair and injured herself. The judge found the council in breach of duty for failing to provide the extra member of staff and that there was a causal connection between the breach of duty and the accident.
No criticism was made of the condition of the chair or where it was positioned. It was argued on behalf of the Council that whilst injury might have been foreseeable if one of the women had been violent it was not foreseeable that the claimant would injure herself on an innocent chair in the absence of such violence.
The Court of Appeal conceded that the accident had not occurred in the ‘most likely manner’. But it did occur as a result of the claimant acting reasonably to remove the risk and to remedy the council’s breach of duty. The court found that the risk of injury was foreseeable and, although it did not happen in a ‘likely manner’, the claimant being injured could be ‘sufficiently envisaged’ and therefore causation was established.
All this rather begs a series of questions. Is it the case that once it is reasonably foreseeable that the claimant might be injured by the potentially violent women then causation is established for any injury she suffers even if they are not in fact violent? If that is correct, would causation be established if the circumstances were the same but she had simply tripped clumsily on her own feet or her hand bag? Doesn’t that introduce a quasi strict liability once breach of duty has been established? What if the claimant had walked into a sniper’s bullet: would that have completely broken the chain of causation and, if so, why?
Another question is whether or not the question of reasonable foreseeability goes to the scope of the duty owed by the employer. It could be said that the scope of the employer’s duty was in fact limited to protecting the teacher from the violence of the women she was due to be teaching; it was not to protect her from her own misfortune of tripping over a chair.
The questions go on. The Court of Appeal have apparently introduced a new test of whether or not something can be ‘sufficiently envisaged’ and it is difficult to see what role that has to play. It is also difficult to see how an employer could say an hour prior to the accident when reviewing his risk assessment that it was reasonably foreseeable that injury could occur in an ‘unlikely manner’.
Whilst this is perhaps all very confusing and fertile ground for academic musing, for practical purposes, all that can be said is that, in employer’s liability cases, the courts are very reluctant to allow causation to get in the way where breach of duty is established. Perhaps this case may go further…
*No transcript is yet available and so this is based on the Lawtel summary.