Wheeler v Copas [1981] 3 All ER 405

Tort law – Negligence – Duty of care


The plaintiff was a partner in a bricklaying company. The defendant was a farmer who wanted a house built on his farm and negotiated for this directly with the plaintiff. They agreed on a labour only contract, with the plaintiff due to provide materials and any equipment needed for the work. They required a ladder for the project; the plaintiff selected one of the ladders from the farm. During use, the ladder gave way and the plaintiff was injured. He sued for damages for personal injury on the basis that the defendant owed a duty of care as an occupier under the Occupier’s Liability Act 1957. If this claim had failed, the plaintiff would have argued that the defendant was negligent as he did not provide suitable equipment for the work.  


The legal issue, in this case, was whether a duty of care was owed by the defendant to the plaintiff. If this could be established, it was important to understand to which extent each of the parties had contributed to the negligence and accident.


The court held that the defendant was not liable under the Occupier’s Liability Act 1957 because although the Act might be appropriate to the facts of this case, the defendant could not be deemed the ‘occupier’ once it was handed over. Following this, the court agreed that the defendant was negligent for failing to provide an adequate ladder for the job. However, this liability was limited by the fact that the plaintiff should have recognised the inadequacy of the ladder. On this basis, he contributed to the negligence.