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Re Polemis and Furness, Withy & Co Ltd [1921] 3 KB 560

The extent of liability where the injuries resultant from tortious negligence are entirely unforeseeable.

Facts

Employees of the defendant had been loading cargo into the underhold of a ship when they negligently dropped a large plank of wood. As it fell, the wood knocked against something else, which created a spark which served to ignite the surrounding petrol fumes, ultimately resulting in the substantial destruction of the ship. At first instance (arbitration), it was held that the reasonable unforeseeability of the outcome meant that the defendant was not liable for the cost of the ship.

Issues

Can a defendant be held liable for outcome of events entirely caused by their (or their agents’) actions, but which could not have been foreseen by either the party in question or any other reasonable party.

Held

The Court of Appeal adopted a strict liability approach to causation and assessing liability here and subsequently held that the defendant was liable for all of the consequences that had resulted from their negligent actions. The fact that the extent of these consequences was neither subjectively appreciated nor objectively foreseeable was deemed irrelevant to such a determination. Notably, this authority would go on to be replaced in the case of Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd v Morts Dock and Engineering Co Ltd (The Wagon Mound) (No. 1) [1961] AC 388, however it has never been officially overturned in English law and theoretically remains ‘good case law’, despite its lack of application.

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