Harlow vs Urban District Council

The above case came to the Court of Appeal in May 1958 and concerned a most unfortunate situation, which befell a lady attempting to use a public convenience operated by the defendant local authority. The claimant attempted to use the facility before she caught a bus with her husband. After telling him her intentions, she entered the lavatory building, went to the furthest cubicle, paid her penny to allow access, entered and shut the door. Her troubles began when she noticed the inside handle of the door was missing and she was stuck. There was no notice or warning on the cubicle that it was faulty and should not be used.

The lavatory attendant employed by the defendant council was absent. She then tried in vain for some 10 to 15 minutes to try and attract attention by banging on the door and shouting, and by banging on the window visible to the outside world. At this point she decided to see if she could attract attention by shouting waving or appearing over the top of the lavatory door. She thought also that she could perhaps climb out. Having climbed onto the toilet, putting one foot on the toilet roll holder and hanging on to a pipe she soon realised she could not. On climbing down, she allowed her weight to fall on the toilet roll holder, which turned round causing her to slip and fall. She was injured in a way described in the case as "not trivial…(but) not serious".1

In the claimant's action for damages against the defendants, they were found to be negligent. However they were found not to be liable for the damages caused to the claimant, as they were too remote. The defendants made no appeal against the finding of their negligence, but the claimant asked the Court of Appeal to review the judgement on her damages. Remoteness is a doctrine long held in English law as a defence to damages claims, which seeks to limit liability as the result of an act of negligence. McKendrick explains the justification for the doctrine as trying to prevent the unfairness of allowing a negligent party to be liable for every injury that could be linked, however tenuously to the act of negligence.2

Without this rule it could be possible for a claimant to break a heel on a broken pavestone, then sue for damages if she fell the next day, blaming the fall on uncomfortable shoes she would not have been wearing had the original pair not been broken. In answering the question of remoteness the judges followed the established rule of first set out in Hadley v Baxendale (1854), 9 Exch. 341; 23 L.J.Ex. 179. This states that for the negligent party to liable for the loss in question it must be a natural and probable consequence of the negligence, and has been affirmed many times in cases since.

The judges concurred that the answer in this case was no, the damage was not too remote. In his reasoning Lord Morris was clear in his application of the Hadley v Baxendale test saying: "The most natural and reasonable action on the part of someone who finds herself undersignedly confined is to seek the means of escape. Those who are responsible for the unjustifiable detention can hardly, either with good grace or with sound reason, be entitled to be astute in offering criticism of the actions of the unfortunate victim." 

He proceed to explain his following of reasoning given by Field J, in Robson v North Eastern Ry. Co4 who said: "if a person by a negligent breach of duty expose the person towards whom the duty is contracted to obvious peril, the act of the latter in endeavouring to escape from the peril, although it may be the immediate cause of the injury, is not the less to be regarded as the wrongful act of the wrongdoer." He continued his reference to that judgement to explain the extension of this reasoning to include grave inconvenience in the subsequent case, Adams v Lancashire and Yorkshire Ry. Co.5

Adams had been cited as an authority for the Sayers case and had been relied on heavily in the original hearing, and by the defence in the appeal, but was distinguished most emphatically, in particular by Lord Evershed. He refuted the claim that in both situations the claimant had suffered a minor inconvenience, saying the inconvenience to the claimant in Sayers was in fact "appreciable, if not substantial". He also stated the current case was distinguished from Adams on the level of danger in which the claimant had put herself, in relation to the inconvenience she was in, describing it as "not unreasonable".