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Why Robinson v Post Office and another is important

In Robinson v Post Office and another, the Court of Appeal confirmed that a defendant is liable in full for all damage irrespective of the extent of harm, so long as the type of harm is reasonably foreseeable. This is on the basis that a defendant must take his victim as he finds him.

Facts

Mr Robinson slipped and fell off a ladder whilst working for the Post Office, resulting in a leg wound. Mr Robinson went to the hospital, where the doctor decided to give him a tetanus injection. This injection was given without the administration of a small test dosage, as was required with all injections.

Mr Robinson’s condition subsequently deteriorated, and he eventually returned to hospital unable to speak. It transpired that Mr Robinson had contracted encephalitis, a possible, albeit rare, consequence of a tetanus injection causing brain damage. He subsequently had two epileptic episodes, and was said to be a “very different man from what he would have been” before the incident.

Claim

Mr Robinson brought a claim in the tort of negligence against both the Post Office and the hospital. The Post Office accepted liability for the small damages which resulted from the fall. However, they disputed liability for damages for contracting encephalitis, and the resulting brain damage. They did so on the basis it was not reasonably foreseeable that Mr Robinson would suffer such injuries as a result of the medical treatment.

The doctor argued they were not negligent in giving the full tetanus injection, and nevertheless that failing to administer the test injection did not cause the loss.

Held

The Court of Appeal held the damage was not too remote and therefore the Post Office was liable in full. In contrast, the hospital was not held liable.

Reasoning

Orr LJ, giving the judgement for the Court, started by considering the liability of the hospital. The Court held they were not liable in administering the injection, and, because it took a few days for Mr Robinson to show symptoms, failing to administer a small test would not have stopped the full injection and so did not cause the loss.

The Court concluded there was no novus actus interveniens because the doctors had not been negligent. Therefore, the remaining question regarding liability of the Post Office was whether the loss was too remote.

As in Smith v Leech Brain & Co Ltd, Orr LJ decided the case based on the principle that a defendant must take his victim as he finds him. He concluded that if a claimant suffers greater harm than is reasonably foreseeable, the defendant remains liable for the full harm so long as the type of harm was foreseeable. This was further supported by dicta from Lord Reid in Hughes v Lord Advocate.

In these circumstances, it did not matter that it was not reasonably foreseeable that Mr Robinson would suffer this specific rare illness from the tetanus injection. Rather, the relevant question was whether this type of harm was foreseeable.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s decision that the harm was reasonably foreseeable. It was sufficient for liability, they said, that it was reasonably foreseeable the victim would require medical treatment, and there may be complications with this (such as an allergic reaction). Furthermore, given the type of work it was also reasonably foreseeable that the victim would require a tetanus injection.

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