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Why Hughes v Lord Advocate is important

In Hughes v Lord Advocate, the HL held that only the type of harm needs to be reasonably foreseeable. Therefore, a defendant will remain liable even if foreseeable harm is caused in an unforeseeable manner.

Facts

Workmen were completing some underground maintenance of some telephone equipment, meaning they had to open a manhole cover. At night, the manhole was left covered with a tent and surrounded by paraffin lamps to warn traffic about the open hole.

At night, a young boy entered the tent and knocked one of the lamps into the hole, causing an explosion. The boy was thrown into the hole, and he suffered from severe burns.

Claim

The boy brought a claim against the workmen in the tort of negligence. The case reached the House of Lords, where the main issue was whether the damage was too remote. The defendant argued it was unforeseeable that there would be an explosion, and therefore the loss was too remote.

Held

The House of Lords rejected the defendant’s appeal, holding that the damage was not too remote.

Reasoning

The House of Lords held that the defendant could only escape liability if the damage was not a kind which was reasonably foreseeable. Therefore, the defendant would remain liable even if the extent of damages was more than reasonably foreseeable.

Lord Guest, with whom Lords Pearce and Reid agreed, rejected the defendant’s argument that the loss was too remote as it came from an explosion. He explained that the explosion was only the means through which the damage (ie the burns) occurred. Whilst an explosion was unlikely and unforeseeable, the presence of unattended paraffin lamps nevertheless made it reasonably foreseeable that someone would suffer from burns. This was especially so given the lamp, tent and open manhole cover would be very ‘alluring’ to children. Therefore, the type of harm suffered was reasonably foreseeable.

In supporting this conclusion, Lord Pearce said:

But to demand too great precision in the test of foreseeability would be unfair to the pursuer since the facets of misadventure are innumerable.

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