Wheat v E Lacon & Co Ltd [1966] AC 552

Tort law – Negligence – Duty to act

Facts

The defendants, in this case, were brewers who owned a public house, which they entrusted to a licensee to manage. This individual was employed by the defendants under a service agreement to this effect. This required the licensee to sell drinks in the ground floor of the premises, as this was the licenced area. The plaintiff was staying in the ‘private’ section of the premises with her husband, and they were staying as paying guests. One night during their stay, the plaintiff fell down a dimly-lit staircase, fractured his skull and died as a result of his injuries.

Issue

The trial judge held that the defendants were not liable as they could not have foreseen that the deceased would have used the staircase in the ‘private’ section. The plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeal who found that the defendants were not in occupation of the staircase. The question for this court was whether, under the circumstances, the defendants were occupants of the public house at the time of the incident and whether they owed the deceased a duty of care under the circumstances.

Held

The court held that the defendants retained occupation and control of the inn and that the plaintiff and her husband had been visitors to the public house and were therefore owed a duty of care by the defendants. However, Denning M.R. held that despite the fact the staircase was unlit; it was not dangerous to those using it whilst taking the appropriate care. As a result of this, the appeal was dismissed.