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Ward v London County Council [1938] 2 All ER 341

TORT – NEGLIGENCE – IMPACT OF SOCIAL UTILITY ON THE STANDARD OF CARE

Facts

A fire engine driver injured the claimant by running a red light while driving to deal with an emergency. The claimant sued the driver’s employers in negligence.

Issue

Establishing the tort of negligence involves establishing that the defendant owed the claimant a duty of care, which they breach in a manner which caused the claimant to suffer harm. To establish breach, the claimant must establish that the defendant failed to act as a reasonable person would have done in their position. This is known as the standard of care.

Various factors have been held to be relevant to assessing the standard of care, such as the risk and severity of harm. The issue in this case was whether it was relevant to assessing the standard of care that the driver was engaging in a socially useful act: responding to and dealing with emergencies.

Held

The driver was held to be negligent, and his employers were vicariously liable.

The social utility of the defendant’s actions was to be taken into account when determining the standard of care. However, the court held that the social utility of the defendant’s actions does not give them carte blanche to take any risk or to injure people. Rather, it only excuses risky actions which are proportionate to the socially useful goal the defendant seeks to achieve by taking the risk.

In this case slowing at the red light would not have made any difference to the outcome of the emergency situation, and the risk of injuring someone by running a red light was disproportionately high compared to any potential benefit. The driver had therefore breached his duty of care. 


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