Empress Car Company (Abertillery) Ltd v National Rivers Authority: HL 22 Jan 1998

A diesel tank was in a yard which drained into a river. It was surrounded by a bund to contain spillage, but that protection was over ridden by an extension pipe from the tank to a drum outside the bund. Someone opened a tap on that pipe so that diesel flowed into the drum until it overflowed.
Held: Whether a defendant caused an escape into a river was not defeated by an additional intervening cause. The question was, had an act been done and did it contribute forseeably to the escape. Acts of third parties and natural events are not defences to the strict criminal liability imposed by section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991 for polluting controlled waters unless they are really exceptional events. The court discouraged too mechanical an approach to causation: ‘The first point to emphasise is that common sense answers to questions of causation will differ according to the purpose for which the question is asked. Questions of causation often arise for the purpose of attributing responsibility to someone, for example, so as to blame him for something which has happened or to make him guilty of an offence or liable in damages. In such cases, the answer will depend upon the rule by which the responsibility is being attributed.’


Lord Browne-Wilkinson, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, Lord Nolan, Lord Hoffmann, Lord Clyde


Gazette 26-Feb-1998, Times 09-Feb-1998, Gazette 25-Mar-1998, [1998] 2 WLR 350, [1998] UKHL 5, [1999] 2 AC 22, [1998] 1 All ER 481


House of Lords, Bailii


Water Resources Act 1991 85(1)


England and Wales


Appeal fromEmpress Car Company (Abertillery) Limited v National Rivers Authority (Now, Environment Agency) Admn 11-Dec-1996
. .
CitedGaloo Ltd and Others v Bright Grahame Murray CA 21-Dec-1993
It is for the Court to decide whether the breach of duty was the cause of a loss or simply the occasion for it by the application of common sense. A breach of contract, to found recovery, must be shown to have been ‘an ‘effective’ or ‘dominant’ . .
CitedAlphacell Ltd v Woodward HL 3-May-1972
The defendant operated a paper manufacturing plant which involved maintaining tanks of polluting liquid near the river, so that pollution would occur if they overflowed. There were pumps which ought normally to have drawn off the liquid and . .
DisapprovedPrice v Cromack 1975
The defendant maintained two lagoons on his land into which, pursuant to an agreement, the owners of adjoining land discharged effluent. The lagoons developed leaks which allowed the effluent to escape into the river.
Held: The escape had not . .
DisapprovedWychavon District Council v National Rivers Authority QBD 16-Sep-1992
The council maintained the sewage system in its district as agent for the statutory authority, the Severn Trent Water Authority. It operated, maintained and repaired the sewers. As sewage authority, it received raw sewage into its sewers. On the . .
CitedNational Rivers Authority v Yorkshire Water Services Ltd HL 21-Nov-1994
The defendant sewerage undertaker received sewage, treated it in filter beds and discharged the treated liquid into the river. One night someone unlawfully discharged a solvent called iso-octanol into the sewer. It passed through the sewage works . .
CitedWeld-Blundell v Stephens HL 1920
The plaintiff had been successfully sued for a libel contained in a document which he had supplied to his accountant.
Held: He could not recover the damages he had had to pay to the defamed party from his accountant, who had negligently left . .
CitedStansbiev Troman CA 1948
A decorator working alone in a house went out to buy wallpaper and left the front door unlocked. He was held liable for the loss caused by a thief who entered while he was away. For the purpose of attributing liability to the thief (e.g. in a . .
Wrongly decidedImpress (Worcester) Ltd v Rees QBD 1971
The appellants kept a fuel oil storage tank with an unlocked valve in their yard near the river. An unauthorised person entered during the night and opened the valve. The justices convicted.
Held: The appeal was allowed. ‘On general principles . .
CitedMediterranean Freight Services Ltd v BP Oil International Ltd (The Fiona) CA 27-Jul-1994
A ship owner is to have made his ship seaworthy in order to claim an indemnity for dangerous fuel set alight by a third party. He was not entitled to claim where the failure to keep the ship seaworthy was his own.
Hirst LJ said: ‘The inclusion . .
CitedNational Rivers Authority v Wright Engineering Co Ltd QBD 19-Nov-1993
Escape following vandalism was not ’caused’ by the company. It was not foreseeable. Although there had been past incidents of vandalism at the defendant’s premises, ‘the vandalism involved was not reasonably foreseeable because it was out of all . .
CitedWelsh Water Authority v Williams Motors (Cwmdu) Ltd QBD 1-Dec-1988
Oil was supplied to Williams Motors by Autobrec Oils and there was spillage from an offset fuel pipe out of sight of the delivery driver. Some of the spilt oil got into the storm drainage, and thus into a canal. Williams Motors were charged under . .
CitedRegina v CPC (UK) Ltd, CPC (UK) Ltd v National Rivers Authority CACD 4-Aug-1994
The defendant operated a factory, using cleaning liquid carried through PVC piping. The piping leaked because it had been badly installed by the reputable subcontractors employed by the previous owners of the factory.
Held: Although the . .

Cited by:

CitedTransco plc v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council HL 19-Nov-2003
Rylands does not apply to Statutory Works
The claimant laid a large gas main through an embankment. A large water supply pipe nearby broke, and very substantial volumes of water escaped, causing the embankment to slip, and the gas main to fracture.
Held: The rule in Rylands v Fletcher . .
CitedFairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services Ltd and Others HL 20-Jun-2002
The claimants suffered mesothelioma after contact with asbestos while at work. Their employers pointed to several employments which might have given rise to the condition, saying it could not be clear which particular employment gave rise to the . .
CitedRegina v Immigration Appeal Tribunal and Another ex parte Shah HL 25-Mar-1999
Both applicants, Islam and Shah, citizens of Pakistan, but otherwise unconnected with each other, had suffered violence in Pakistan after being falsely accused them of adultery. Both applicants arrived in the UK and were granted leave to enter as . .
CitedExpress Ltd v The Environment Agency QBD 15-Jul-2004
The dairy appealed its conviction for allowing cream to enter a brook from the land of its customer.
Held: Polluting matter did not need to be itself noxious or poisonous, it was enough that it stained or tinted the water as did cream. Though . .
CitedChester v Afshar HL 14-Oct-2004
The claimant suffered back pain for which she required neurosurgery. The operation was associated with a 1-2% risk of the cauda equina syndrome, of which she was not warned. She went ahead with the surgery, and suffered that complication. The . .
AppliedRegina v Finlay CACD 8-Dec-2003
The defendant appealed from his conviction for manslaughter. He had been found to have prepared heroin by loading it into a syringe and passing it to a friend.
Held: Even if ‘the appellant had not himself wielded the syringe, he would have . .
CitedCommissioner of Police for the Metropolis v Reeves (Joint Administratix of The Estate of Martin Lynch, Deceased) HL 15-Jul-1999
The deceased was a prisoner known to be at risk of committing suicide. Whilst in police custody he hanged himself in his prison cell. The Commissioner accepted that he was in breach of his duty of care to the deceased, but not that that breach was . .
CitedRegina v Kennedy HL 17-Oct-2007
The defendant had been convicted of manslaughter. He had supplied a class A drug to a friend who then died taking it. The House was asked ‘When is it appropriate to find someone guilty of manslaughter where that person has been involved in the . .
CitedHurst, Regina (on the Application of) v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis v London Northern District Coroner HL 28-Mar-2007
The claimant’s son had been stabbed to death. She challenged the refusal of the coroner to continue with the inquest with a view to examining the responsibility of any of the police in having failed to protect him.
Held: The question amounted . .
CitedRegina v RL and JF CACD 28-Aug-2008
Club, not members, prosecutable for breach
The Environment Agency appealed against dismissal of charges against the defendants who were officers in an unincorporated members’ golf club on whose land there had been pollution. The judge had ruled that the unincorporated association could have . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Environment, Utilities

Leading Case

Updated: 24 April 2022; Ref: scu.135165