Intervening Acts and Remoteness Lecture


It is not enough for a harm to be merely caused by a defendant. It is also a requirement that the causal link between defendant action and claimant harm is sufficiently close, before a valid claim can be made (this is sometimes referred to as ‘legal causation’.)

The original position was far more open, as in Re Polemis and Furness, Withy & Co Ltd [1921] 3 KB 560. The claimants loaded a ship they had chartered with its cargo, including a number of petrol containers. This led to petrol vapour accumulating in the hold of the ship. This petrol ignited when a heavy plank was dropped into the ship’s hold by a stevedore, creating a spark as it fell. This destroyed the ship. The defendants argued that it was unforeseeable that a spark would have occurred from the plank, and that therefore no liability arose. The courts however rejected this argument, holding that there was no requirement for damage to be foreseeable before it was actionable. The claim therefore succeeded.

Fortunately, the law has now developed to demand that damage must be foreseeable before it is actionable. See The Wagon Mound(No. 1)

Case in Focus: Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd v Morts Dock and Engineering Co Ltd (The Wagon Mound) (No. 1) [1961] AC 388

The defendants negligently leaked some oil into Sydney harbour from their tanker. This oil then drifted to the claimant’s wharf, where it mixed with various flotsam, including some cotton wadding. Welding was taking place on the wharf, and so the claimants sought assurances that it was okay for them to continue, and received these assurances (oil in this form is usually non-flammable). However, sparks from the welding did in fact ignite the oil-soaked cotton wadding, causing a fire which spread to two ships and the damaging the wharf itself.

It was ruled that the defendants were not liable for the damage - it was not reasonably foreseeable that the oil would catch fire (it was only the unlucky combination of cotton wadding floating in the harbour which caused the fire).

Exam Consideration: Whilst this has become the currently applicable rule, it should be noted that Re Polemis was not technically overruled, since that decision was from the Court of Appeal, and The Wagon Mound was a Privy Council case.

As such, in order for a valid claim to be made there must be a duty, a breach, factual causation, and, as per The Wagon Mound (No. 1), the harm must be foreseeable (or rather, it must not be too remote.) However, the concept of foreseeability has been further refined in a number of cases, as detailed below.

Refining Foreseeability - Type of Harm

As long as a particular type of harm is foreseeable, it will not be too remote, even if the likelihood of that harm materialising is small.

This principle can be seen in the follow-up case to The Wagon Mound (No. 1) - Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd v The Miller Steamship Co or Wagon Mound (No. 2) [1967] 1 AC 617. The fact are as above, but this time the claimant was not a wharf owner, but rather the owner of a ship moored at the wharf. It should be noted that different evidence was submitted the court in this latter case (which helps to explain the differing decisions.) The court held that as long as a particular type of damage is foreseeable, then it will not be too remote, even if it unlikely. Thus, because there was a slim, but entirely foreseeable risk of the oil igniting on the water, it was not too remote. The ship owner was therefore able to recover.

Refining Foreseeability - The Way the Damage is Done

The courts have further refined the concept of foreseeability to dictate that whilst the nature of the harm caused must be foreseeable, the exact series of events leading up to it need not be.

This principle can be seen to be in effect in Hughes v Lord Advocate [1963] AC 837. The claimant was a young boy who came across a manhole which had been left uncovered by the defendant, protected only by a small tent and a paraffin lamp. The child descended into the hole uneventfully, but upon climbing up kicked over one of the paraffin lamps, which fell into the hole, causing an explosion in which the child was burned. The defendants argued successfully in the Court of Appeal that whilst a child being burned by an unsupervised paraffin lamp was foreseeable, the sequence of events which led to the child being burned in the case at hand was not, and that therefore the claim was invalid by reason of remoteness. This decision was reversed upon appeal - it was held that since the child’s burning through contact with one of the lamps was foreseeable, this was sufficient to establish causation, and thus the claim succeeded. It can thus be concluded that remoteness is based on something being foreseeably harmful, even if the exact series of events which might lead to that harm occurring is itself not foreseeable.

The same principle can be seen at play in Jolley v Sutton London Borough Council [2000] 1 WLR 1082. The defendant was a borough council who left a damaged boat propped up on a piece of its land for two years. The claimants, two boys, took it upon themselves to repair the boat back to working order. Whilst undertaking this work the boat collapsed, trapping one of the boys and causing him injury. The Court of Appeal held took an event-based perspective of the matter (as it did in Hughes), ruling that it was not foreseeable that an accident would occur as a result of the boys deciding to work on the boat. Again, as in Hughes, the House of Lords rejected this stance, and instead ruled that since it was foreseeable that some harm would occur to the children as a result of the boat’s unsecured presence on the land, that the claim should succeed.

The courts have at times been willing to stretch the Hughes principle rather far, and this has rendered some strange rulings. Bradford v Robinson Rentals Ltd [1967] 1 All ER 267 provides one such example. The claimant was employed by the defendants as a radio service engineer. One day, he was tasked with exchanging an old, dilapidated work van for a newer vehicle. This involved a long drive, and conditions were extremely cold, to the extent that a weather warning had been issued, advising drivers not to make any unnecessary journeys. The van’s heater was broken, and the window stuck in a lowered position, but despite the claimant’s request that the journey be postponed, his employers insisted. As a result this combination of factors, the claimant suffered frostbite, and thus sued his employers. The courts upheld his claim. Whilst it is apparent from Hughes that odd circumstances will not form an obstacle to claim, there remains still also remains a requirement that the type of damage be foreseeable. It is therefore odd that the courts held frostbite to be a foreseeable type of damage, given its rarity within the temperate UK climate. Nevertheless, frostbite was held to be foreseeable - after all, the defendants were aware of the extreme cold weather warning and the poor state of repair of the van.

It should be kept in mind, however, that the courts appear to have placed emphasis not simply on whether an object or practice is foreseeably harmful, but also on the specific way an object or practice might be harmful. This can be seen in Doughty v Turner Manufacturing Co. Ltd [1964] 1 QB 518. The claimant, an employee of the defendants, was injured when the cover from a vat of molten metal was tipped into the vat itself. This caused a chain reaction, resulting in an explosion which seriously burned the claimant. The courts held that whilst a splash burn from the molten metal was foreseeable, a burn from an explosion was not, and the claim therefore failed. 

Although it is difficult to reconcile Hughes and Doughty, both can be considered to turn around the concept of kinds of damage. In the former case, the foreseeable kind of damage was ‘burns that might foreseeably be caused by an unsecured paraffin lamp’, and thus included both burns from direct contact, but also explosions. In the latter, the kind of damage was ‘burns that might foreseeably be caused by molten metal’, and thus included splash damage, but not the rare and unlikely explosive damage which injured the claimant.

The same principle can be seen to be applied in Tremain v Pike [1969] 1 WLR 1556. The claimant was employed as a labourer on a farm by the defendants. He contracted leptospirosis (a bacterial infection) from handling materials which rats had urinated on. However, whilst it was known that the infection could be transmitted by rat bites or scratches, or by consuming contaminated food it was not known that it could be transmitted in the way that affected the claimant. Thus, although leptospirosis from rats on a farm was foreseeable, because the mode of harm was unforeseeable, the claim failed. This can be seen as existing in a similar vein as Doughty - although the general harm of leptospirosis was foreseeable, the specific ‘brand’ of harm was distinguished from those which could be considered as foreseeable. This is arguably a sensible stance to take - the defendants in this case could not have possibly acted to have prevented the harm from occurring, since it was unknown to anyone that leptospirosis could be transmitted in the way it was in this case. This can be contrasted with cases such as Jolley v Sutton London Borough Council - it is hardly novel medical science that children can be crushed by a falling boat.

Although the courts have meandered in their application of the Hughes principle, the general principle is clear: the courts will not ask whether a specific series of events is foreseeable when examining remoteness; rather they will simply ask whether a general category of harm is foreseeable. This is arguably a simpler and more effective approach to take towards remoteness, and this point can be illustrated through an examination of the US case of Palsgraf v Long Island Railroad Co.162 NE 99 (1928). The claimant was waiting for a train at the defendant’s train station. Another train arrived, and just before it was about to pull away, a passenger attempted to climb aboard. Two train guards attempted to help the passenger on-board, and in doing so knocked a package he was carrying from his arms. Unbeknownst to anyone except the passenger, the package contained volatile (early 19th century!) fireworks, and when the package hit the rails, the fireworks ignited. This caused an explosion which knocked a heavy set of industrial weighing scales from their perch, onto the claimant, injuring her.

Exam Consideration: It should be noted that the claim failed (on the basis that, as per 19th Century US law, the claimant was not owed a duty of care by the railway). Nevertheless, the facts provide a key example of how Hughes deals with unlikely series of events.

A pre-Hughes reading would render the result that the harm was too remote - the farce-like series of events would not have been foreseen by even the most imaginative defendant, and thus the harm too remote. A post-Hughes reading, on the other hand, would render the result that as long as it was held to be foreseeable that the heavy scales might fall onto someone, the injured party would be able to make a successful claim. When this distinction is considered, further advantages emerge. We don’t want defendants to prevent specific series of events from occurring; rather, we want them to take the proper precautions to prevent a potentially harmful object from harming anybody, regardless of the cause. Consider a grand piano secured with the thinnest and most fragile of wires above a busy thorough-fare. One day, a passer-by loses their glasses. It is a sunny day, and the glasses focus the sunlight onto a pile of leaves, and start a small fire. This fire startles a bird, which then flies off haphazardly and clips the piano, causing it to fall and crush another passer-by. This precise series of events is unforeseeable, and so without the precedent of Hughes in place a claim would fail through remoteness.

Consider the same setup, but this time it simply rains. The extra weight on the piano causes the wire to snap, dropping the piano onto a passer-by. This is far more foreseeable, and a claim would likely succeed. Regardless, the owner of the piano has been extremely careless in both scenarios, and so it would be nonsensical to let the first claim fail just because the entirely foreseeable harm of the piano falling was caused by an unforeseeable chain of events. We don’t want the piano owner to take precautions just to avoid foreseeable chains of events - we want them to secure the piano full stop, so as to negate the general danger it presents. This is the benefit of the Hughes approach- it does not discriminate against claimants who are unlucky enough to be injured through odd circumstances. Instead, it simply asks what the preventable risk was, and punishes those who fail to make safe those risks - a far more pragmatic formulation of tort law, which acts to minimise harm. At the same time, all it asks of defendants is that they act to prevent the foreseeable categories of harm, rather than all of the harms which might occur from a given object or activity - as seen in Doughty.

Refining Foreseeability - Extent of Damage

As long as a type of damage is foreseeable, then defendants will not be able to argue that they did not foresee the extent of damage caused. This principle can be seen in Vacwell Engineering Co v BDH Chemicals Ltd. [1971] 1 QB 88. The defendants supplied volatile chemicals to the claimants without a warning that they would explode when in contract with water. One of the claimant’s employees dropped a container of the chemical into a sink, and this caused a large explosion, destroying the claimant’s premises. Since it was foreseeable that, without sufficient warning, that a risk of accidental combustion existed, the defendant was liable for the full extent of the damage.

Extensive damage will not be regarded as being too remote, even if that damage has unfolded in a unique or eccentric manner. Thus, in The Trecarrell the defendants, who were ship repairers working on the claimant’s ship, negligently dropped a barrel of flammable lacquer into the ship’s hold.  This severed an electric cable, which then shorted in the spilt contents of the barrel, causing an electrical fire. The defendants were liable for the full extent of the damages caused, since it was foreseeable that dropping a barrel of flammable lacquer might cause fire damage. This is essentially the same reasoning as seen in Hughes, except Hughes refers to an odd series of events unfolding and causing harm, whereas The Trecarrell refers to a pedestrian event causing harm which then unfolds in a unique or unlikely manner.

This stance reflects how we’d want tort law to operate - we would find it absurd for someone who negligently starts a fire to argue that they are only responsible for burning down the first two houses in a terrace, but no the third or fourth. Similarly, we would find it unjust if a drunk driver who caused a pileup could claim that they only foresaw creating a minor accident, but not a major one. Thus, at least in cases of physical damage or injury, claimants are responsible for the full extent of the damage they cause, even if that damage has unfolded in an unforeseeable manner.

However, it should be noted that the courts have seen fit to place a perimeter around a harmful event in order to distinguish between actionable and inactionable harms. This can be seen in Crossley v Rawlinson [1981] 3 All ER 674. A lorry caught fire whilst travelling to its destination (the fire was caused by the defendant’s negligence). The lorry’s driver then pulled over onto the side of the road. The claimant, an AA patrolman, saw the fire and also stopped, pulled out a fire extinguisher from his vehicle, and ran towards the lorry to extinguish the fire. He tripped and fell, and was injured. He brought a claim against the defendants on the basis that he was on the way to deal with the danger they had created. The claim, however, failed. The courts held that it was foreseeable that someone might be hurt dealing with a fire, but not that they might be injured on the way to the fire itself. Thus, the courts drew a distinction between the events of the fire itself (and anyone who was hurt in dealing with the fire directly) and the claimant’s injuries.

So, whilst the courts will hold defendants responsible for the full extent of the damages they have caused, they can be seen to place a limit on the types of harm which can be said to emanate from an instance of negligence.

The Egg Shell Skull Rule

As in criminal law, the courts have instituted an egg-shell skull rule for claimants, as per Smith v Leech Brain & Co Ltd [1962] 2 QB 405. The claimant was splashed with molten metal on his lip due to the defendant’s negligence. The claimant’s lip happened to be pre-malignant, and the burn caused cancer to develop, which then killed the claimant. The defendant argued that, under The Wagon Mound (No. 1), that this was not foreseeable, and so liability should not be imposed. However, the courts rejected this argument - it was foreseeable that some harm would occur from the burn. 

Consider the difference between The Wagon Mound and Smith - in the former case, it was unforeseeable that any harm would occur at all, whilst in this latter case, harm was foreseeable, even if the exact extent of the harm was not. As such, the egg shell rule dictates that defendants must take their claimants as they find them.

This rule applies not only to claimants themselves or their property, but also to the environment surrounding their property. This was the ruling in Great Lakes Steamship Co v Maple Leaf Milling Co [1924] 41 TLR 21. The defendants were contracted to remove weight from a docked ship at a particular time. They failed to do so, and when the water level dropped, the ship was grounded and damaged (had the ship been light enough, it would have been higher in the water and saved from harm.) The damage was particularly extensive because, unbeknownst to the defendants, a large anchor was submerged below the ship. Nevertheless, the defendants were held to be liable for the full extent of the damage - in effect, the defendants had to take the external circumstances of the claimant as they found them.

For a period of time this rule did not apply to the wealth of claimants, as in Liesbosch Dredger v SS Edison [1933] AC 449. The defendant negligently sank the claimant’s dredger. Because of the claimant’s financial situation, they could not afford to replace it, and so had to hire a replacement at a high cost. It was ruled that the claimant could not recover the hire charges as these did not stem from the defendant’s negligence, but rather the claimant’s own financial situation.

This exception has since been overruled in Lagden v O’Connor [2003] UKHL 64. Here, the defendant damaged the claimant’s car, and the claimant had to rent a replacement. Because of the claimant’s poor financial situation, they had to hire on credit, which was more expensive than paying for the hire outright. The courts ruled that this additional cost was recoverable under the egg shell skull rule - just as it is possible to recover for unforeseen cancer, it is also possible to recover for unforeseen credit-hire charges.

Furthermore, the rule also applies to claimant’s pecuniousity (their willingness to spend money). This is illustrated in Dodd Properties (Kent) Ltd. v Canterbury City Council [1980] 1 WLR 433. The defendants erected a carpark using a pile driver, and in doing so caused damage to the claimant’s neighbouring property. The claimant opted to wait until the case had been decided before embarking on repairs. The case took some 8 years to be decided, and in that time the damage to the claimant’s building worsened, and so did the cost of repair. This left the court to decide which amount of damages was appropriate - the smaller cost of repair shortly after the damage occurred, or the greater cost of repair now that the case had been decided.

The courts ruled that the later value was the correct measure of damages - the defendants had to accept their victim as they found him - and this included a lack of willingness to spend money to immediately rectify a fault, even if this might mean that the fault worsened. It should however be noted that claimants must still act reasonably under this rule - they cannot, for example, refuse to undertake a £20 repair if this would prevent £20,000 of damage. It should also be noted that the general rule for assessing damages is that they are calculated at the time of breach.

Intervening Acts (or Novus Actus Interveniens)

It is also possible for certain events to break the chain of causation between the defendant’s actions and the claimant’s injuries. There are three varieties of intervening acts. Those taken by third parties those taken by the claimant themselves, and those which are acts of nature

Third Party Acts - As Consequences of the Original Harm

Third party acts take place after the original harm to the claimant or their property, but can be thought of as disrupting the claim in some way. Consider a situation in which a car is damaged by a negligent driver, who pays compensation. The next week, the same car is negligently crushed into a cube by a parking official. The driver who merely damaged the car might argue that they should only have to pay compensation to cover one week’s worth of damage, since the original damage to the car was completely overtaken by the act of crushing it.

The general rule involves asking whether the third party’s acts can be tied to the original harm, as seen in Scott v Shepherd [1773] 96 Eng. Rep. 525. The defendant tossed a small lit firework into a crowded marketplace. It landed on a seller’s market stall, who tossed the firework away to protect himself. It landed on another seller’s stall, who then also tossed the firework away, where it hit the claimant, exploded, and blinded him in one eye. The court held that the defendant was responsible for the claimant’s injuries - although there had been intervening third party acts, they could be considered consequences of the original harmful act.

The same principle can be seen to be applied in The Oropesa [1943] 1 All ER 211. The claimant’s ship was damaged in a collision with the defendant’s ship. As was usual practice, the captain of the damage ship attempted to travel across to the defendant’s ship to discuss the collision. The boat he was in overturned, and he was killed along with several members of his crew. The court ruled that this was still a consequence of the original harm - it was reasonable and foreseeable that the captain would make the journey.

However, if an unreasonable act is undertaken by a third-party in response to a negligent harm, that will break the chain of causation. See Knightley v Johns and Others [1982] 1 WLR 349. The defendant negligently caused a car accident. In dealing with the accident, a senior police officer neglected to close the tunnel in which the accident had occurred. This meant that another police officer on a motorcycle had to ride against traffic up the tunnel to close it. This police officer was involved in another collision, and was badly injured. The court ruled that the original defendant was not liable for this injury - the senior police officer had acted unreasonably in failing to close the tunnel, and so it was he who was liable for the motorcyclist’s injuries.

It is also possible for liability to be apportioned between the original defendant and the third party. In Wright v Lodge & Shepherd [1993] 4 All ER 299 a driver broke down on a busy road, and failed to move her car onto the hard shoulder. This caused a lorry to crash into it. The defendant negligently swerved to avoid the crashed lorry onto the other side of the road, causing another crash to occur. The courts ruled that whilst the defendant had acted unreasonably, the ultimate cause was the first driver’s negligence, and so split the cost of damages 10%/90%, between the first driver and the defendant.

Third Party Acts - Unrelated to the Original Harm

The general rule is that whether an act or occurrence is severe enough to constitute a novus actus interveniens depends largely on the circumstances of the case itself. This can be seen in Baker v Willoughby [1970] AC 467. The claimant was originally knocked down by a negligent driver, and was suffering from permanent stiffness in his leg as a result. Before the cause went to trail, the claimant was involved in an armed robbery, during which he was shot in the same injured leg. This meant his leg had to be amputated.

The courts ruled that although the original injury was ‘overtaken’ by the new injury, that this did not constitute an intervening act within tort. It was instead ruled that his compensation for the original injury should remain in place - the robbers had never been caught, and thus could not be sued, so to end the original compensation claim would leave the claimant without remedy. It was held that the original claim for loss of earnings still stood - the claimant still could not work properly, even if a new injury was now the prevailing cause of this.

This is arguably a logical position - compensation claims are prospective in nature, they involve roughly ascertaining the loss to the claimant over the course of their lifetime, and then compensating the claimant accordingly. If claims were able to be changed based on things that happened to the claimant after the court’s decision, then this would potentially open up all claims to re-evaluation.

However, the position in Baker is not necessarily applied consistently. See Jobling v Associated Dairies Ltd [1982] AC 794. The claimant had an original slip and fall injury due to his employer’s negligence, resulting in a back injury. This led to a loss of 50% in his earning capacity, for which he was compensated. Three years later (but still before trial!) the claimant independently developed a spinal disease called spondylotic myelopathy, leaving him completely unable to work. In contrast to Baker, the courts ruled that the new disease constituted an intervening act, breaking the chain of causation and leaving the claimant’s employer only liable for the three-years between the injury and the new disease.

Whilst the courts fell short of overruling Baker, they were critical of the decision, which suggesting that Jobling represents the generally applicable law. The principle from Jobling is that as long as it occurs pre-trial, any unconnected disabling illness which effectively overwhelms the original injury will constitute a novus actus interveniens.

Exam Consideration: The uncertain position regarding third party acts is somewhat problematic when it comes to finding the correct law to apply. In general, where the intervening act is a disease, this will fall under Jobling. Where it is not, then Baker will likely apply. Regardless, such situations are rare - remember, the second harm has to occur pre-trial to be considered, since the courts will rarely go back to modify compensation agreements after the trail process has concluded.

Claimant Acts

There also exists the possibility for the claimant’s themselves to take an intervening act, breaking the chain of causation between the defendant’s acts and the eventual injury. This took place in McKew v Holland & Hannen & Cubitts.

Case in Focus: McKew v Holland & Hannen & Cubitts (Scotland) Ltd. [1969] 3 All ER 1621

The claimant was injured at work due to negligence on the part of his employer. This left him with a variety of minor temporary issues, including a weakened leg, which was prone to giving way. A few days later, when viewing flats to rent, he attempted to move down a flight of stairs which did not have a handrail. The claimant’s leg gave out, and the claimant jumped down the remaining 10 steps (in order to land on his feet, rather than fall). This fractured his ankle and left him with a permanent injury. The claimant then sued his employer again, asserting that the new injury was a consequence of the old injury.

Whilst the defendant accepted liability for the original injury, it disputed liability for this second injury. The courts agreed, ruling that the claimant had acted unreasonably in descending the stairs without taking proper precautions (i.e. moving slowly so that he might react to his leg giving way).

Noting the unforeseeable nature of the claimant’s new injuries, the courts therefore ruled that the claimant had taken an intervening act (in descending the stairs unsafely), and the second claim failed:

Acts of Nature

There also exists a third category of intervening acts - not those taken by the claimant themselves, nor by any third party, but instead acts which are due to nature itself (sometimes referred to as ‘acts of god’). Such an act can be seen in Carslogie Steamship Co Ltd v Royal Norwegian Government [1952] AC 292. The claimant (the Royal Norwegian Government) had one of its ships damaged by the defendant in a collision (and the defendant admitted fault). This meant that the ship had to be repaired temporarily in the UK before it sailed to the US for permanent repairs to be carried out. During the crossing, the claimant’s ship sustained further damage when it was caught up in a storm. The claimants asserted that but for the original collision, the ship would not have had to have made the trans-Atlantic journey, and so would not have sustained the additional storm damage.

The courts rejected the claim, and so the defendant was only held liable for damages arising from the first collision, and not the subsequent storm damage - the storm was held to be a novus actus interveniens, and so the claim was based on a faulty reading of causation. In particular, the courts noted that the storm damage was incidental - it could have happened to any ship on any voyage, and thus could not be held to be a consequence of the original collision.

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.