Southern Water Authority v Pegrum [1989] Crim LR 442

Causation – Novus Actus Interveniens – Act of God – Negligence – Foreseeability


The defendants were pig farmers.  Waste and effluence from the pigs was stored first in tanks which drained into a lagoon which had been constructed to store pig effluence.  After heavy rain a blocked drain caused excess water to flow into the lagoon.  This caused a fissure in the wall of the lagoon and eventually effluence overflowed and polluted a nearby stream.  The defendants were charged with an offence under s31(1) Control of Pollution Act 1974 of causing polluting matter to enter a stream.  The magistrate found the water ingress to be an Act of God and the blocked drain to break the chain of causation.  The prosecutor appealed.


Did the defendant’s negligence cause the pollution?  Should the defendants have inspected the drain? Did the effect of the blocked drain which caused the fissure and overflow constitute an Act of God and so result in a novus actus interveniens which broke the chain of causation between the defendant’s act and the resulting damage?


The appeal was allowed and the defendants remitted with a direction to convict.  The defendants were liable under the provisions of the governing act if they ‘caused’ the escape of the effluence and polluting material.  The question of causation was to be considered in a common sense manner, and the defendants could have ‘caused’ the escape even without their negligence.  Whist an Act of God was a defence applying Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330 this act must be of such an overpowering nature that it could be said that the defendants’ conduct was not a cause at all but part of the surrounding circumstances.  This was not the case. Neither the unusually heavy rain nor the blocked drain were so unforeseeable circumstances to excuse the defendants’ conduct.