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Scott v London & St Katherine Docks Co  3 H&C 596
TORT – NEGLIGENCE – BREACH OF DUTY – RES IPSA LOQUITUR
The claimant was a dockworker who was injured when large, heavy bags of sugar fell from the defendant’s crane and hit him. The claimant sued the defendant in the tort of negligence.
Establishing negligence involves establishing that the defendant breached their duty of care to the claimant. To establish breach, the claimant must establish that the defendant failed to act as a reasonable person would in their position.
Here, the claimant could not prove what had happened to cause the sugar bags to fall, making it difficult to prove that the defendant had breached their duty. The issue was whether a claimant can establish negligence if they cannot prove what the defendant did to cause the harm.
The High Court held that a finding of liability was possible in this case.
The court relied on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (literally ‘the thing speaks for itself’). This doctrine holds that if the defendant was in control of a situation, and an accident occurs which would not normally occur in the absence of carelessness of some kind but the cause of the accident is unknown, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to adduce evidence that he was not negligent. If he cannot, a breach of duty will be made out. If he can, the court must assess this evidence to determine whether it is still reasonable to presume negligence.
The court held that this accident was clearly the sort of thing which would not occur if someone had not been negligent. As the defendant was not able to prove that it had not breached its duty to the claimant, it was liable.
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