Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd v Morts Dock and Engineering Co Ltd (The Wagon Mound No 1): PC 18 Jan 1961

Foreseeability Standard to Establish Negligence

Complaint was made that oil had been discharged into Sydney Harbour causing damage. The court differentiated damage by fire from other types of physical damage to property for the purposes of liability in tort, saying ‘We have come back to the plain common sense stated by Lord Russell of Killowen in Bourhill v. Young [1943] A.C. 92. 101. As Denning LJ said in King v. Phillips [1953] 1 Q.B. 429, 441: ‘there can be no doubt that the test of liability for shock is foreseeability of injury by shock.’ Their Lordships substitute the word ‘fire’ for ‘shock’ and endorse this statement of the law.’ and ‘a man must be considered to be responsible for the probable consequences of his act. To demand more of him is too harsh a rule, to demand less is to ignore that civilised order requires the observance of a minimum standard of behaviour.’ He should be responsible ‘not because they are natural or necessary or probable, but because, since they have this quality, it is judged by the standard of the reasonable man that he ought to have foreseen them.’ and ‘After the event even a fool is wise. But it is not the hindsight of a fool; it is the foresight of the reasonable man which alone can determine responsibility.’ (Viscount Simonds) Lord Reid: ‘In the present case there was no justification whatever for discharging the oil into Sydney Harbour. Not only was it an offence to do so, but it involved considerable loss financially. If the ship’s engineer had thought about the matter, there could have been no question of balancing the advantages and disadvantages. From every point of view it was both his duty and his interest to stop the discharge immediately.’
Viscount Simonds: ‘Their Lordships conclude this part of the case with some general observations. They have been concerned primarily to displace the proposition that unforeseeability is irrelevant if damage is ‘direct’. In doing so they have inevitably insisted that the essential factor in determining liability is whether the damage is of such a kind as the reasonable man should have foreseen. This accords with the general view thus stated by Lord Atkin in Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] A.C. 562, 580: ‘The liability for negligence whether you style it such or treat it as in other systems as a species of ‘culpa,’ is no doubt based upon the general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing for which the offender must pay.’ . . Thus foreseeability becomes the effective test.’


Viscount Simonds, Lord Reid


[1961] AC 388, [1961] UKPC 2, [1961] UKPC 2, 100 ALR2d 928, [1961] 2 WLR 126, [1961] 1 Lloyd’s Rep, 1961 AMC 962, [1961] 1 All ER 404


Bailii, Bailii




OverturnedIn re Polemis and Furness, Withy and Co CA 1921
There was an exception in a time Charterparty for ‘fire . . always mutually accepted.’
Held: These words were not sufficient to exclude damage caused by a fire due to the negligent act of stevedores (the charterers’ agents) in the course of . .
CitedBourhill v Young’s Executor HL 5-Aug-1942
When considering claims for damages for shock, the court only recognised the action lying where the injury by shock was sustained ‘through the medium of the eye or the ear without direct contact.’ Wright L said: ‘No doubt, it has long ago been . .
CitedKing v Phillips CA 1952
Denning LJ said: ‘there can be no doubt since Bourhill v. Young that the test of liability for shock is foreseeability of injury by shock.’ A person ‘who suffers shock on being told of an accident to a loved one cannot recover damages from the . .

Cited by:

CitedWhite, Frost and others v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire and others HL 3-Dec-1998
No damages for Psychiatric Harm Alone
The House considered claims by police officers who had suffered psychiatric injury after tending the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy.
Held: The general rules restricting the recovery of damages for pure psychiatric harm applied to the . .
CitedLagden v O’Connor HL 4-Dec-2003
The parties had been involved in a road traffic accident. The defendant drove into the claimant’s parked car. The claimant was unable to afford to hire a car pending repairs being completed, and arranged to hire a car on credit. He now sought . .
CitedPlatform Home Loans Ltd v Oyston Shipways Ltd and others HL 18-Feb-1999
The plaintiffs had lent about 1 million pounds on the security of property negligently valued at 1.5 million pounds. The property was sold for much less than that and the plaintiffs suffered a loss of 680,000 pounds. The judge found that the . .
AppliedLamb v Camden London Borough Council 1981
The property had been left vacant for repairs and then taken over by squatters. A claim was made in respect of the liability of the land-owners for the damage caused by the squatters.
Held: The damage was too remote. The correct test was not . .
CitedSmith New Court Securities Ltd v Scrimgeour Vickers HL 21-Nov-1996
The defendant had made misrepresentations, inducing the claimant to enter into share transactions which he would not otherwise have entered into, and which lost money.
Held: A deceitful wrongdoer is properly liable for all actual damage . .
CitedSimmons v British Steel plc HL 29-Apr-2004
The claimant was injured at work as a consequence of the defender’s negligence. His injuries became more severe, and he came to suffer a disabling depression.
Held: the Inner House had been wrong to characterise the Outer House decision as . .
CitedMcKillen v Barclay Curle and Co Ltd 1967
The Lord Ordinary had awarded the pursuer damages for tuberculosis, on the basis that in the accident he had fractured a rib and this had reactivated his pre-existing tuberculosis.
Held: The pursuer had failed to prove the causal connexion . .
ConsideredSmith v Leech Brain and Co Ltd CA 1962
The reasoning in The Wagon Mound did not affect the rule that a tortfeasor takes his victim as he finds him.
Lord Parker CJ said: ‘The test is not whether these employers could reasonably have foreseen that a burn would cause cancer and that . .
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 . .
CitedRegina v London Borough of Sutton, ex parte Jolley CA 19-Jun-1998
The plaintiff, a boy, was injured when playing on a derelict boat left on council land. The council appealed an award of damages against it.
Held: A local authority may be liable for injury caused by a derelict boat not removed from their land . .
CitedHughes v Lord Advocate HL 21-Feb-1963
The defendants had left a manhole uncovered and protected only by a tent and paraffin lamp. A child climbed down the hole. When he came out he kicked over one of the lamps. It fell into the hole and caused an explosion. The child was burned. The . .
See AlsoOverseas Tankship (UK) Ltd v Miller Steamship Co Pty (The Wagon Mound) (No 2) PC 25-May-1966
(New South Wales) When considering the need to take steps to avoid injury, the court looked to the nature of defendant’s activity. There was no social value or cost saving in this defendant’s activity. ‘In the present case there was no justification . .
CitedJolley v Sutton London Borough Council HL 24-May-2000
An abandoned boat had been left on its land and not removed by the council. Children tried to repair it, jacked it up, and a child was injured when it fell. It was argued for the boy, who now appealed dismissal of his claim by the Court of Appeal, . .
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 . .
CitedCaparo Industries Plc v Dickman and others HL 8-Feb-1990
Limitation of Loss from Negligent Mis-statement
The plaintiffs sought damages from accountants for negligence. They had acquired shares in a target company and, relying upon the published and audited accounts which overstated the company’s earnings, they purchased further shares.
Held: The . .
CitedJebson v Ministry of Defence CA 28-Jun-2000
The claimant was a guardsman travelling in the rear of a service lorry. He fell from the tailgate suffering severe injury. He was drunk after a social trip.
Held: Though a person could normally expect to be responsible himself for incidents . .
CitedJames, Regina v; Regina v Karimi CACD 25-Jan-2006
The defendants appealed their convictions for murder, saying that the court had not properly guided the jury on provocation. The court was faced with apparently conflicting decision of the House of Lords (Smith) and the Privy Council (Holley).
CitedCorr v IBC Vehicles Ltd CA 31-Mar-2006
The deceased had suffered a head injury whilst working for the defendant. In addition to severe physical consequences he suffered post-traumatic stress, became more and more depressed, and then committed suicide six years later. The claimant . .
CitedBPE Solicitors and Another v Hughes-Holland (In Substitution for Gabriel) SC 22-Mar-2017
The court was asked what damages are recoverable in a case where (i) but for the negligence of a professional adviser his client would not have embarked on some course of action, but (ii) part or all of the loss which he suffered by doing so arose . .
CitedMiller v Jackson CA 6-Apr-1977
The activities of a long established cricket club had been found to be a legal nuisance, because of the number of cricket balls landing in the gardens of neighbouring houses. An injunction had been granted to local householders who complained of . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Leading Case

Updated: 24 April 2022; Ref: scu.184750