Why Paris v Stepney Borough Council is important
In Paris v Stepney Borough Council, the House of Lords considered the gravity (or severity) of harm when asking if the defendant breached their duty of care. This was balanced alongside the likelihood of harm.
The claimant, Paris, was blind in one eye. He worked for the defendant as a garage-hand. Whilst using a steel hammer, a piece of metal flew off the bolt and went into his right eye. Paris consequently lost sight in his right eye, rendering him completely blind.
Paris brought an action against the defendant in the tort of negligence. He argued that Stepney BC breached their duty by failing to give him suitable safety goggles.
Whether the defendant council had failed to take reasonable care. Lord Normand asked himself ‘what precautions would the ordinary reasonable and prudent man take’?
The defendant failed to take reasonable care. The reasonable person would have provided the claimant with safety goggles.
The House of Lords considered the likelihood of harm alongside the potential severity of harm. The more serious the potential damage, the more would be expected of the reasonable person.
In the words of Lord Morton:
In considering generally the precautions which an employer ought to take for the protection of his workmen it must, in my view be right to take into account both elements, the likelihood of an accident happening and the gravity of the consequences.
The majority of the House of Lords took into account of the claimant’s disability. As the claimant only had one good eye, the consequences of any injury to the claimant’s good eye was far greater. Therefore, the Court said more would be expected of the reasonable person.
Lord MacDermott said:
the known circumstance that a particular workman is likely to suffer a graver injury than his fellows from the happening of a given event is one which must be taken into consideration in assessing the nature of the employer’s obligation to that workman.
The majority of the House of Lords did not comment whether the reasonable person would be expected to supply safety goggles to all mechanics working on vehicles. This followed from their conclusion that the duty owed was an individual duty owed specifically to the claimant.
Lords Simond and Oaksey dissented. They accepted that the gravity of harm (or potential injury) is an important consideration. Nevertheless, they concluded this was outweighed by the likelihood of harm being very low, and the fact that it was uncommon for mechanics to wear safety goggles. In these circumstances, their Lordships concluded that the the reasonable person in the council’s shoes would not be expected to supply safety goggles.
Lords Simond and Oaksey concluded that the claimant’s disability was not a relevant factor. They considered that the reasonable person would be expected to supply safety goggles to all employees, or no employees. Based on the factors above, they held that the reasonable employer would not be expected to supply safety goggles to all their employees working on vehicles.