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Published: Wed, 07 Mar 2018

Caswell v Powell Duffryn Associated Collieries Ltd [1940] AC 152

Employer’s liability for injury and death of an employee due to breach of a statutory duty and the role of contributory negligence.


A mine worker was responsible for periodically cleaning the movable plates of a coal-transporting conveyor belt, instructed to ensure that the machine was off beforehand. The lever to turn it off was operated by a man at a far distance from the machine and there was no signalling system. One day, the man was found dead, caught in the machine’s belts.


The question arose as to whether the employer was liable for the employee’s death due to a breach of statutory duties concerning dangerous machinery under Section 55, Coal Mines Act 1911. The two defences raised concerned (1) whether there were reasonably practicable exceptions to the employer’s duty; and (2) whether the employee’s negligence was a contributory cause of death.


Firstly, the Court held that the employer was under a statutory duty to ensure that the dangerous machine was fenced and to guarantee a reasonably safe system for the performance of the employer’s duties. The employer failed to fulfil these duties and did not prove that it was not reasonably practicable to take steps to prevent these breaches, and was thus liable. Secondly, as to the question of contributory negligence, the Court held that the employer will not be liable for a statutory breach if the injury was “caused wholly or in part by the omission of the workman.” (p 169) The Court held that the care expected of an employee must be assessed in lieu of surrounding circumstances and that, on the facts, there was no sufficient evidence to show that the employee was guilty of any fault or acted negligently. Accordingly, the Court held the employer’s liability for the employee’s death.

Word Count: 298 words

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