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Why Mullin v Richards is important

In Mullin v Richards, the Court of Appeal held that a defendant’s age is relevant for determining whether they have failed to take reasonable care. In particular, age is relevant for determining whether the defendant foresaw the risks of their actions.

Facts

Two school girls, aged 15, were ‘fencing’ with rulers. One of the rulers snapped and a fragment of plastic ended up in the claimant’s eye. The claimant, Ms Mullin, lost all her useful sight in this eye.

Claim

Mullin brought an action against her friend, Ms Richards, in the tort of negligence. She also brought a claim against the education authority, based on a lack of proper supervision. We are only concerned with the first claim against Ms Richards.

Issue

Whether the defendants had failed to take reasonable care, and as such were liable in the tort of negligence.

Held

The Court of Appeal held that Ms Richards had not been negligent. The claimant was awarded no damages.

Reasoning

The Court made clear that the defendant should not be judged against the standard of a reasonable adult. Instead, she should be judged according to an ordinary 15 year-old. Hutchinson LJ, who gave the primary judgement, said:

The question for the Judge is not whether the actions of the defendant were such as an ordinarily prudent and reasonable adult in the defendant’s situation would have realised gave rise to a risk of injury, it is whether an ordinarily prudent and reasonable 15 year old schoolgirl in the defendant’s situation would have realised as much.

Hutchinson LJ therefore asked himself: “whether on the facts found by the Judge and in the light of the evidence before him he was entitled to conclude that an ordinary, reasonable 15 year old schoolgirl in the first defendant’s position would have appreciated that by participating to the extent that she did in a play fight, involving the use of plastic rulers as though they were swords, gave rise to a risk of injury to the plaintiff of the same general kind as she sustained.”

The Court concluded that Ms Richards had not failed to take reasonable care. There was no evidence that she used dangerous force, they were prohibited from play fighting in this way, or they were warned that such behaviour could risk serious injury. Instead, the Court classified the injury as being an ‘accident’.

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