Tort A - Liability for the Acts of Third Parties

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Liability for the acts of third parties

ONE PERSON IS NOT NORMALLY LIABLE FOR HARM TO A SECOND PERSON CAUSED BY A THIRD PERSON OR THIRD PARTY. A IS NOT LIABLE FOR HARM TO B CAUSED BY C. 

This general rule was affirmed in Smith v Littlewoods Ltd and confirmed in Mitchell v Glasgow City Council

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PERL V LONDON BOROUGH OF CAMDEN [1984]

The defendant council owned a block of flats and rented one to the claimant for his business. The flat next door was empty and there was no lock on the front door. Thieves went into the empty flat, knocked a hole in the wall and burgled the claimant's business. The Court of Appeal held that the risk of burglary was foreseeable due to no lock on the front door, but that the defendant council had no control over the burglars and were therefore not liable for their actions.

HOWEVER, there can be exceptions to this rule...

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STANSBIE V TROMAN [1948]

An exception is where there is a special relationship between the defendant and the claimant. 

There can be a special relationship which creates enough proximity for the courts to impose a duty of care. A contractual relationship can create this proximity. 

In this case, the plaintiff employed a decorator who left the house at the end of the day leaving it unlocked after promising to lock the door. The plaintiff was then burgled. The decorator was held liable for the losses suffered because of the third party. The contractual relationship between the plaintiff and decorator justified this imposition of liability. He had assumed responsibility of locking up and so because of this was liable for the act of a third party.

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EVERETT AND HARRISON V COMOJO LTD [2011]

Everett and Harrison went to the defendant's nightclub. B saw them hit a waitress and said he would make them apologise. B's driver then arrived and stabbed both Everett and Harrison. They claimed that the nightclub had been negligent for not searching guests and that an alerted waitress should have notified security. It was held that the assault was foreseeable due to the presence of alcohol and the proximity between the club and the guests. However, B had never caused trouble and the violence happened quickly, so even if the waitress had told security it would have been too late. 

The defendants were therefore not held liable for the actions of a third party. 

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HOME OFFICE V DORSET YACHT CO [1970]

If the defendant has control over the third party or has a close relationship with them this may lead to a relationship of proximity, if it is foreseeable that the claimant will suffer harm.

Borstal boys went camping on an island under the supervision of three prison officers. They went to bed leaving the boys unsupervised who then stole a yacht, crashing into the claimant's yacht. The Home Office argued that it could not be liable for the actions of the third parties. It was held by the House of Lords that it was foreseeable that if the boys escaped they would take a yacht. The officers had left the boys unsupervised and were responsible for controlling them. The Home Office were held negligent and responsible for the actions of the boys, even though they were third parties. 

They were only responsible for the immediate damage however. Only that damage which happened close by and in a close period of time. It may be the case that if it had been further away or longer in time, the officers may not have been liable. 

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NEW SOUTH WALES V GODFREY [2004] New Zealand case

A prisoner escaped due to prison officer negligence and weeks later put a gun to Godfrey and threatened to shooot him, causing psychiatric injury. It was held that the prison authority could not be held liable in this case, as they only owed a duty if something occurred WITHIN THE ACT OF ESCAPING. It could not be an unlimited time between the escape and the incident when they would be liable. 

THERE IS THEREFORE A TIME LIMITATION ON HOW LONG THE DEFENDANT CAN BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THIRD PARTY ACTIONS EVEN IF THERE IS A CLOSE RELATIONSHIP OF PROXIMITY BETWEEN THEM. 

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CAMARTHENSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL V LEWIS [1955]

A small child escaped from a school and ran out into the road causing the claimant to swerve to avoid him. It was held that the school had a close relationship of proximity with the child and had failed to properly control him. The damage was very close and was a immediate consequence of the child's escape. The decision would probably have been different it had happened 3 miles away, eg, as the control that the defendant exercises over the third party is limited.

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TARASOFF V REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA

A mental patient was obsessed with Tarasoff and began to stalk her, confessing to his psychiatrist that he wanted to kill her. The psychiatrist did nothing. The patient then murdered Tarasoff. Her estate brought a claim against the psychiatrist and it was held that she should have warned someone and had a duty to take steps towards preventing the murder as this was a particular threat against a particular person and the relationship between patient and psychiatrist was sufficiently close to have assumed responsibility. 

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CHILDS V DESORMEAUX [2006]

There was a NYE BYOB party. A guest came to the house of the defendants and drank their own booze, then drove away, but hit someone seriously injuring them. Did the social hosts owe a duty to the individual injured by the third party's actions? It was held no. The host had no idea what the guest was drinking. But even if the host had known what they were drinking it is unlikely that a duty would have been owed, as a person makes an autonomous decision to drink and drive and so policy reasons would have probably prevented a duty from being owed in this case. 

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STEWARD V PETTIE (1995) Canadian case

A theatre guest was intoxicated and drove himself and his friends home when a car accident resulted in serious injuries. Was the theatre liable for allowing Stewart to drive after intoxication from alcohol purchased from them? It was held no. Canada are generally more willing to impose a duty of care in these situations, but there was no duty owed by commercial vendors in this case. 

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HAYNES V HARWOOD [1935]

What about where the defendant has CREATED a source of danger which is SPARKED OFF by a third party?

If the defendant has created the danger negligently and it is foreseeable that a third party will use that danger to injure the claimant, then the defendant will be liable. An example was given by Lord Goff of a defendant who keeps a shed full of fireworks unsecure and the fireworks are then ignited by mischievous children. 

The defendants in this case were liable for leaving their horses unattended in the street, even though it was the boy throwing the stone (the actions of a third party) which caused the injury to the police officer. 

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TOPP V LONDON COUNTRY BUS [1993]

In this case, a driver parked a bus in a lay-by unlocked with the keys still inside it near a pub. It was normal practice to do this between shifts, but the next driver failed to turn up and a third party stole it knocking down the claimant's wife. The claim was brought against the bus company in vicarious liability. It was held that there was no duty of care to prevent the third party from taking the bus, and that there was not sufficient control for them to have assumed responsibility to prevent harm to the third party. 

The courts have to determine WHAT can be regarded as a SPECIAL DANGER LEADING TO LIABILITY and what is seen as a NORMAL danger, leading to no liability. There seems to be a fine line between some of the cases. 

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CLARK FIXING LTD V DUDLEY MBC [2001]

This case was where there was liability for FAILING TO TAKE REASONABLE STEPS TO ABAT A DANGER CREATED BY A THIRD PARTY. 

Where the defendant KNOWS OR REASONABLY OUGHT TO KNOW that THIRD PARTIES ARE CREATING A DANGER on his or her premises, THE DEFENDANT IS UNDER A DUTY TO TAKE REASONABLE STEPS TO ABATE THAT DANGER. 

in this case, known trespassers on a vacant development site started a fire which burned down neighbouring property. The Court of Appeal distinguished this from the similar fact case of Smith v Littlewoods Ltd by stating that they held the defendant liable for failing to remove combustible material from the site to prevent the spread of fire. In this case, Dudley MBC had known about the trespassers whereas Littlewoods did not. If the previous fires had been known to Littlewoods, they would probably have been held liable in the same way. 

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Conclusion for third party liability

Even though generally there is no liability for the actions of third parties, in some cases there are exceptions. This is limited though and is worked on a case by case basis as to what is reasonable, what is sufficiently proximate, and what is fair, just and reasonable. 

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