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4.2.3 Breach of Statutory Duty Lecture - Hands on Example

Question:

Caprica Repairs is a small mechanic’s workshop, dealing primarily with car repair. The garage is part of a corporate chain, Baltar Garages, which sets up garages and then employs mechanics to staff them. One day, a series of unfortunate accidents take place.

Firstly, Kara (one of the garage’s mechanics) is working underneath a car when the jack used to hold it up gives way. Her leg is trapped under the car and is broken.

One of the garage’s other mechanics, Lee, takes Kara to hospital.

Whilst Lee and Kara are away, Galen (a third mechanic) slips on a patch of oil. He hurts his arm, cannot do any more work that day, and goes home, leaving the garage empty.

One of the cars they are working on has faulty wiring, and whilst the garage is unattended the car battery shorts, causing a small fire to develop. When Lee and Galen return from the hospital they discover the fire.

Lee attempts to use a fire-blanket to put out the fire. He is successful, but suffers a number of burns whilst doing so.

The mechanics file a report with the local fire station. The fire station send out an inspector, and ascertain that whilst the garage used to have a sprinkler system fitted, it has been removed by Baltar Garages to save on maintenance costs. Such sprinklers are fitted as standard in just about every single other garage in the country.

After seeking legal advice, Kara, Lee and Galen are informed that there are three pieces of legislation which apply to their injuries (all fictional.)

The Mechanic Preservation Act 2001 states that “it is the duty of all employers of mechanics to ensure that jacks and other devices used for holding cars are safe. Employers are strictly liable for any damage which might occur from faulty jacks or devices.”.

The Oil-rig and Derrick Workers Act 1998 states “it shall be the duty of employers who employ those who work with oil to ensure no injuries occur as a result of slips or falls caused by spilt oil or similar. Employers will be strictly liable for any such injuries.”.

The Fire Safety Act 2006 dictates that “all employers shall take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that fire safety systems are in place, in line with the industry-standard practices.”.

None of the acts mention whether they impose criminal liability.

Apply the above legislation to Kara, Galen and Lee’s injuries, discussing whether each has a valid case or not against their employer. Ignore the effects that other legislation might have.

Answer:

There are three different claims which need to be addressed here. The first is Kara’s claim for injury by the jack. In order to establish liability, a duty must be established, it must be breached, there must be damage and that damage must be caused by the defendant’s breach. Under The Mechanic Preservation Act 2001 it is the duty of Kara’s employer to ensure that the jack she was using was safe. Because the act imparts strict liability, Kara will not have to show explicitly that her employer failed to ensure the jack was safe – the fact that she has been injured is sufficient to show a failure by her employer. This mirrors the situation in John Summers & Sons Ltd v Frost [1955] AC 740 – just as injury from an unfenced machine was enough to establish liability, injury from an unsafe jack is enough to establish liability in this case. Damage to Kara as the claimant, and causation are not troublesome here, and so Kara’s claim will in all likelihood succeed.

Galen’s injuries are more complex, however. Galen is seeking to rely on The Oil-rig and Derrick Workers Act 1998. However, it is highly questionable as to whether this Act will apply to Galen’s situation, and thus whether a duty exists between Galen and his employer. As per Lonrho Ltd v Shell Petroleum Co Ltd (No. 2)the courts will examine a statute in order to ascertain who is intended to benefit from its protection. Whilst a literalist approach towards the statute might render the result that it applied in Galen’s case, it can be inferred from the Act’s title that it is intended to deal with safety on oil rigs, rather than with all oil-based slips that occur in the UK. Since Galen is not a member of this class of workers, it is unlikely that he will be able to enjoy the protection of the Act. Galen’s case can also be likened to Gorris v Scottthe mischief which is intended to be prevented is unsafe oil rigs, and so a distinction can be made between a garage environment and an oilrig environment. Thus, because the statute does not apply to Galen’s workplace, his employer does not have a duty towards him to prevent slips.

Lee’s injuries, however, are covered by the relevant Fire Safety Act 2006. The question here is not whether a duty applies – it does, since Lee has an employer, and that employer is responsible for maintaining the garage’s fire safety systems under the Act. Instead, the key question is whether Lee’s employer has breached the Act. As in Nimmo v Alexander Cowan and Sons Ltd. [1968] AC 107, the burden of proof is on Lee’s employer to show that they had taken all reasonable practicable steps to ensure that a proper fire safety system is in place, in line with industry standards. Since the standard practice appears to be the installation and maintenance of a sprinkler system, and Baltar Repairs has fallen short of this standard in removing the sprinkler system. There is a good case to be made for this having caused Lee’s injuries – had the system been in place, Lee is unlikely to have had to smother the fire directly, and so would have avoided his injury.

More generally, since none of the acts mention criminal liability, the courts are likely to hold that it is possible to for civil liability to arise, as per Lonrho. Even if this were the case, this would not necessarily form an obstacle to civil enforcement, as per Groves v Lord Wimborne [1898] 2 QB 402.


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