Murphy v Brentwood District Council: HL 26 Jul 1990

Anns v Merton Overruled

The claimant appellant was a house owner. He had bought the house from its builders. Those builders had employed civil engineers to design the foundations. That design was negligent. They had submitted the plans to the defendant Council for approval under the building bye-laws. The Council approved them. The Council was negligent in so doing. The inadequacy of the foundations meant that they did not prevent differential settlement which badly affected the claimant’s house. The cost of repair was 45,000 pounds. He did not repair but instead sold it for 35,000 pounds less than he would have obtained for it had the foundations been designed properly. He sued the Council in respect of this damage.
Held: To hold a local authority, in supervising compliance with the building regulations or bye-laws, to a common law duty of care to avoid putting a purchaser of a house in a position in which he would be obliged to incur such economic loss was an extension of principle that should not, as a matter of policy, be affirmed.
A builder was not liable for purely economic, as opposed to physical, losses of an occupier of a building he constructed.
Lord Oliver said: ‘In his classical exposition in Donoghue v. Stevenson . . Lord Atkin was expressing himself in the context of the infliction of direct physical injury resulting from a carelessly created latent defect in a manufactured product. In his analysis of the duty in those circumstances he clearly equated ‘proximity’ with the reasonable foresight of damage. In the straightforward case of the direct infliction of physical injury by the act of the plaintiff there is, indeed, no need to look beyond the foreseeability by the defendant of the result in order to establish that he is in a ‘proximate’ relationship with the plaintiff . . The infliction of physical injury to the person or property of another universally requires to be justified. The causing of economic loss does not. If it is to be categorised as wrongful it is necessary to find some factor beyond the mere occurrence of the loss and the fact that its occurrence could be foreseen. Thus the categorisation of damage as economic serves at least the useful purpose of indicating that something more is required.’
Lord Keith said that if the plaintiffs had happened to discover the defect before any damage had occurred there would seem to be no good reason for holding that they would not have had a cause of action at that stage, without having to wait until some damage had occurred. They would have suffered economic loss through having a defective chimney upon which they required to expend money for the purpose of removing the defect. It would seem that in a case such as Pirelli, where the tortious liability arose out of a contractual relationship with professional people, the duty extended to take reasonable care not to cause economic loss to the client by the advice given. The plaintiffs built the chimney as they did in reliance on that advice. The case would accordingly fall within the principle of Hedley Byrne.


Lord Oliver, Lord Keith of Kinkel


[1991] 1 AC 398, Times 27-Jul-1990, [1990] 2 All ER 908, [1991] UKHL 2




England and Wales


OverruledAnns and Others v Merton London Borough Council HL 12-May-1977
The plaintiff bought her apartment, but discovered later that the foundations were defective. The local authority had supervised the compliance with Building Regulations whilst it was being built, but had failed to spot the fault. The authority . .
CitedDutton v Bognor Regis Urban District Council CA 1972
The court considered the liability in negligence of a Council whose inspector had approved a building which later proved defective.
Held: The Council had control of the work and with such control came a responsibility to take care in . .
CitedDonoghue (or M’Alister) v Stevenson HL 26-May-1932
Decomposed Snail in Ginger Beer Bottle – Liability
The appellant drank from a bottle of ginger beer manufactured by the defendant. She suffered injury when she found a half decomposed snail in the liquid. The glass was opaque and the snail could not be seen. The drink had been bought for her by a . .
CitedFarr v Butters Brothers and Co 1932
Breaking the chain of causation in a negligence claim. . .

Cited by:

ConsideredStovin v Wise (Norfolk City Council, 3rd party) CA 16-Feb-1994
A road user was injured on a corner which was known to the highway authority to be dangerous. The authority had sought to make arrangements with the owner of land adjoining the highway to remove a bank which obstructed the view.
Held: The . .
CitedBellefield Computer Services and others v E Turner and Sons Limited and others CA 18-Dec-2002
The defendants had carried out works of construction on the premises. They subcontracted the design, but not the supervision, of the works to architects. Years later there was a fire, which spread rapidly because of negligence in the design of a . .
CitedBellefield Computer Services Limited, Unigate Properties Limited; Unigate Dairies Limited; Unigate (Uk) Limited; Unigate Dairies (Western) Limited v E Turner and Sons Limited Admn 28-Jan-2000
The Defendant builders constructed a steel building to be used as, inter alia. a dairy. The original owners sold it to the appellants. A fire spread from the storage area to the rest of the dairy and caused much damage. The Builders, had they . .
CitedBinod Sutradhar v Natural Environment Research Council CA 20-Feb-2004
The defendant council had carried out research into a water supply in India in the 1980s. The claimant drank the water, and claimed damages for having consumed arsenic in it.
Held: There is a close link between the tests in law for proximity . .
CitedAlfred Mcalpine Construction Limited v Panatown Limited HL 17-Feb-2000
A main contractor who was building not on his own land, would only be free to claim damages from a sub-contractor for defects in the building where the actual owner of the land would not also have had a remedy. Here, the land owner was able to sue . .
CitedAbbott and Another v Will Gannon and Smith Ltd CA 2-Mar-2005
The claimant had employed the defendants to design refurbishment works for their hotel. The work was said to be negligent, and the claimant sought damages. The defendant argued as a preliminary point that the claim was time barred. The question was . .
CitedInvercargill City Council v Hamlin PC 12-Feb-1996
(New Zealand) Seventeen years earlier the plaintiff had asked a builder to construct a house for him, but it now appeared that the foundations had been inadequate. The building company no longer being in existence, he sought damages from the local . .
CitedMcTear v Imperial Tobacco Ltd OHCS 31-May-2005
The pursuer sought damages after her husband’s death from lung cancer. She said that the defenders were negligent in having continued to sell him cigarettes knowing that they would cause this.
Held: The action failed. The plaintiff had not . .
CitedHM Customs and Excise v Barclays Bank Plc HL 21-Jun-2006
The claimant had served an asset freezing order on the bank in respect of one of its customers. The bank paid out on a cheque inadvertently as to the order. The Commissioners claimed against the bank in negligence. The bank denied any duty of care. . .
CitedD Pride and Partners (A Firm) and Others v Institute for Animal Health and Others QBD 31-Mar-2009
The claimants sought damages after the loss of business when the defendants’ premises were the source of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The organism had escaped from their premises via a broken drain.
Held: Much of the damage claimed . .
CitedMichael and Others v The Chief Constable of South Wales Police and Another SC 28-Jan-2015
The claimants asserted negligence in the defendant in failing to provide an adequate response to an emergency call, leading, they said to the death of their daughter at the hands of her violent partner. They claimed also under the 1998 Act. The . .
CitedRobinson v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police SC 8-Feb-2018
Limits to Police Exemption from Liability
The claimant, an elderly lady was bowled over and injured when police were chasing a suspect through the streets. As they arrested him they fell over on top of her. She appealed against refusal of her claim in negligence.
Held: Her appeal . .
CitedPoole Borough Council v GN and Another SC 6-Jun-2019
This appeal is concerned with the liability of a local authority for what is alleged to have been a negligent failure to exercise its social services functions so as to protect children from harm caused by third parties. The principal question of . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Damages, Negligence

Leading Case

Updated: 11 February 2022; Ref: scu.180994