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Why Jobling v Associated Dairies is important

In Jobling v Associated Dairies, the House of Lords reaffirmed the ‘vicissitudes’ principle. This means that the damages award will be reduced where a second, natural event which would have occurred anyway overtoakes the claimant’s initial injury.


In January 1973, Jobling slipped at work and injured his back. The claimant falled again in January 1975 making this condition worse, which was attributed to the 1973 injury. As Jobling’s condition worsened, he was only able to perform sedentary work.

In 1976, Jobling began suffering from spondylotic myelopathy in his neck. By the end of 1976, he was completely unable to work. The Court accepted that at the time of the claimant’s first injury this disease was a dormant, albeit not existing, condition.


Jobling brought a claim in the tort of negligence against his employer. The trial judge awarded damages for pain and suffering, loss of amenities and for loss of earnings. The defendant accepted the former two, but appealed the award for loss of earnings. The CA set aside the award for lost earnings because the supervening myelopathy made Jobling totally unfit for work. Jobling appealed this decision to the House of Lords.

The House had to decide whether to reduce the damages award based on the supervening condition (which would have occurred anyway), or whether this is irrelevant for the purposes of causation.


The House of Lords held that the defendant did not need to pay damages for lost earnings once the claimant’s illness made him totally unfit for work. In doing so, they upheld and applied the ‘vicissitudes of life’ principle.


Rejecting Baker v Willoughby

The House of Lords refused to apply the approach in Baker v Willoughby, which was based on causation.

Lords Edmund-Davies and Keith were the most forceful in disagreeing with the House in Baker. Lord Keith concluded that they should have considered the vicissitudes principle in Baker, rather than approach the case using causation. Similarly, Lord Edmund-Davies said he could “formulate no convincing juristic or logical principles supportive of the decision of this House in Baker v Willoughby, and none were there propounded.” Lord Edmund-Davies went on to say:

The loss of earnings sustained after the amputation of the leg was caused by the amputation, not by the first accident. And the effect of the amputation was to obliterate completely all the constituents (pain and suffering, reduced earning capacity, and loss of amenities) of the damages to be awarded for the injury sustained as a result of that accident.

Similarly, Lord Wilberforce rejected that any rule of logic, such as ‘the defendant takes his victim as he finds him,’ was appropriate. This would only only increased the chance of injustice. He said,

The fact, however, is that to attempt a solution of these and similar problems, where there are successive causes of incapacity in some degree, upon classical lines (…” the defendant must take the plaintiff as he finds him, etc.”) is, in many cases no longer possible. We do not live in a world governed by the pure common law and its logical rules. We live in a mixed world where a man is protected against injury and misfortune by a whole web of rules and dispositions, with a number of timid legislative interventions. To attempt to compensate him upon the basis of selected rules without regard to the whole must lead either to logical inconsistencies, or to over—or under—compensation.

Approach in Jobling v Associated Dairies

In any event, the House of Lords concluded that Jobling was distinguishable from Baker. Whilst in Baker the Court was faced with successive torts against the same limb, in Jobling the second event was a naturally occurring event to a different part of the body. The HL was therefore not bound by the rules in Baker, and instead decided the case on alternative grounds.

The House of Lords concluded that Associated Dairies did not need to pay damages for lost earnings once the claimant’s illness made him totally unfit for work. This was based on the ‘vicissitudes of life’ principle, and that the Court need not speculate when it knows. Lord Edmund-Davies said “[t]hat is in accordance with the long-established and eminently reasonable principle that the onset or emergence of illness is one of the vicissitudes of life relevant to the assessment of damages.” The Court therefore took into account the claimant’s illness when assessing damages. In the words of Lord Russell, “where there is knowledge estimation has no part.”

Lord Russell rejected that there was a distinction where a condition is latent. He concluded inter alia that the principle of making an allowance for the ordinary vicissitudes of life should not be overtaken by the principle that a tortfeasor takes his victim as he finds them.

Lord Wilberforce primarily based his decision on ‘justice’. The just result was for the defendant to be liable only until the claimant’s spodlyotic myelopathy took over as the reason for his lost earnings. An important factor was the likely chance of sick pay and insurance. Regardless, if rationality was required Lord Wilberforce invoked the ‘vicissitudes’ argument.

<—– Previous case
Baker v Willoughby

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