Photo Production Ltd v Securicor Transport Ltd: HL 14 Feb 1980

Interpretation of Exclusion Clauses

The plaintiffs had contracted with the defendants for the provision of a night patrol service for their factory. The perils the parties had in mind were fire and theft. A patrol man deliberately lit a fire which burned down the factory. It was an unresolved issue whether the employee intended to cause only a small fire or burn down the whole factory. The contract purported to exempt the plaintiffs from liability.
Held: The appeal succeeded, and the order at first instance restored. The question of whether particular clauses applied to excuse or limit liability was solely a matter of construction of the contract. The doctrine of fundamental breach had no significant part to play. The court analysed the distinction between primary and secondary obligations. A fundamental breach, whilst bringing to an end primary obligations under the contract, does not necessarily bring to an end secondary obligations, such as exclusion clauses. There was no rule of law that liability could not be excluded, let alone limited in respect of deliberate breach.
Lord Diplock said: ‘My Lords, an exclusion clause is one which excludes or modifies an obligation, whether primary, general secondary or anticipatory secondary, that would otherwise arise under the contract by implication of law. Parties are free to agree to whatever exclusion or modification of all types of obligations as they please within the limits that the agreement must retain the legal characteristics of a contract; and must not offend against the equitable rule against penalties; that is to say, it must not impose upon the breaker of a primary obligation a general secondary obligation to pay to the other party a sum of money that is manifestly intended to be in excess of the amount which would fully compensate the other party for the loss sustained by him in consequence of the breach of primary obligation. Since the presumption is that the parties by entering into the contract intended to accept the implied obligations exclusion clauses are to be construed strictly and the degree of strictness appropriate to be applied to their construction may properly depend upon the extent to which they involve departure from the implied obligations. Since the obligations implied by law in a commercial contract are those which, by judicial consensus over the years or by Parliament in passing a statute, have been regarded as obligations which a reasonable businessmen would realise that he was accepting when he entered into a contract of a particular kind, the court’s view of the reasonableness of any departure from the implied obligations which would be involved in construing the express words of an exclusion clause in one sense that they are capable of bearing rather than another, is a relevant consideration in deciding what meaning the words were intended by the parties to bear. But this does not entitle the court to reject the exclusion clause, however unreasonable the court itself may think it is, if the words are clear and fairly susceptible of one meaning only.
My Lords, the reports are full of cases in which what would appear to be very strained constructions have been placed upon exclusion clauses, mainly in what today would be called consumer contracts and contracts of adhesion. As Lord Wilberforce has pointed out, any need for this kind of judicial distortion of the English language has been banished by Parliament’s having made these kinds of contracts subject to the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. In commercial contracts negotiated between businessmen capable of looking after their own interests and of deciding how risks inherent in the performance of various kinds of contract can be most economically borne (generally by insurance), it is, in my view, wrong to place a strained construction upon words in an exclusion clause which are clear and fairly susceptible of one meaning only even after due allowance has been made for the presumption in favour of the implied primary and secondary obligations.’
Lord Wilberforce said that the rescission of the supply agreement excuses the innocent party from further performance of his obligations (if any) under the supply agreement.

Lord Diplock, Lord Wilberforce, Lord Salmon, lord Keith of Kinkel, Lord Scarman
[1980] AC 827, [1980] UKHL 2, [1980] 1 All ER 556
Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977
England and Wales
ExplainedMorris v C W Martin and Sons Ltd CA 1965
The plaintiff took her mink stole to the defendants for cleaning. An employee received and stole the fur. The judge had held that the defendants were not liable because the theft was not committed in the course of employment.
Held: The . .
Appeal from (CA)Photo Production Ltd v Securicor Transport Ltd CA 1978
The Master of the Rolls considered the use of an exemption clause, saying that the Court was to consider first whether the breach was ‘fundamental’. If so, he said, the court itself deprives the party of the benefit of an exemption or limitation . .
CriticisedKarsales (Harrow) Ltd v Wallis CA 12-Jun-1956
The Court considered an exemption clause: ‘Notwithstanding earlier cases which might suggest the contrary, it is now settled that exempting clauses of this kind, no matter how widely they are expressed, only avail the party when he is carrying out . .
CitedHarbutt’s Plasticine Ltd v Wayne Tank and Pump Co Ltd CA 1970
The plaintiffs’ factory in an old mill, burned down because Wayne Tank had installed a pipeline made of unsuitable and dangerous plastic material and wrapped in heating tape attached to a useless thermostat. It had been switched on and the plant . .
CitedSuisse Atlantique Societe d’Armement Maritime SA v NV Rotterdamsche Kolen Centrale HL 1966
No magic in the words “fundamental breach”
There is no rule of law which prevents parties to a contract agreeing to limit their respective liabilities. It is a question of the construction of the particular clause as to whether it applies to a fundamental breach or not. The court doubted the . .

Cited by:
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CitedDaewoo Heavy Industries Ltd and Another v Klipriver Shipping Ltd and Another CA 3-Apr-2003
The carrier had loaded the cargo on the ship’s deck, despite a clause requiring it to be stowed in a hold. The charterparty sought to use the breach to remove the carrier’s limit of liability. The older form of Hague rules applied.
Held: It . .
CitedManx Electricity Authority v J P Morgan Chase Bank CA 3-Oct-2003
The claimant sought to appeal an order striking out its claim against the defendant under a performance bond. The defendant denied that the demand was valid, saying it did not allege a current breach of the contract.
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CitedPort Jackson Stevedoring Pty Ltd v Salmond and Spraggon (Australia) Pty Ltd; The New York Star PC 1980
A question arose, in the context of dispute between a consignee of goods and stevedores, whether the latter could rely on a time bar. It was argued that because of the fundamental nature of the breach, the stevedore had deprived itself of the . .
CitedSuper Chem Products Limited v American Life and General Insurance Company Limited and Others PC 12-Jan-2004
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CitedAssociated Deliveries Ltd v Harrison CA 1984
A landlord, having forfeited the lease could not recover for damage to the property caused by third parties before possession was finally given. The election to forfeit was unequivocal, and damages were irrecoverable from the date of service of the . .
CitedIn Re Park Air Services Plc; Christopher Moran Holdings Ltd v Bairstow and Another HL 4-Feb-1999
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CitedLister and Others v Hesley Hall Ltd HL 3-May-2001
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Held: ‘Vicarious liability is legal . .
CitedHarding v Wealands HL 5-Jul-2006
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Held: . .
CitedGeorge Mitchell (Chesterhall) Ltd v Finney Lock Seeds Ltd CA 29-Sep-1982
The buyer bought 30lbs of cabbage seed, but the seed was not correct, and the crop was worthless. The seed cost andpound;192, but the farmer lost andpound;61,000. The seed supplier appealed the award of the larger amount and interest, saying that . .
CitedRock Refrigeration Limited v Jones and Seward Refrigeration Limited CA 10-Oct-1996
The claimant sought to enforce a post employment restrictive covenant given by the defendant. The defendant replied that the clause was too widely framed and was unreasonable since it applied to a temination of his contract ‘howsoever occasioned’. . .
CitedStocznia Gdynia Sa v Gearbulk Holdings Ltd CA 13-Feb-2009
Orders were placed for the construction of ships. They were not delivered. The buyer, the defendant, cancelled the orders. The defendants sought the loss of profit. The claimants said they were entitled only to the repayment of instalments. The . .
CitedLombard North Central v Butterworth CA 31-Jul-1986
The defendant entered into a hire-purchase contract for a computer, time being stipulated to be ‘of the essence’ in relation to the payment obligations. He defendant defaulted, and the plaintiff took possession of the goods, and and sought payment . .
CitedWoodland v Essex County Council SC 23-Oct-2013
The claimant had been seriously injured in an accident during a swimming lesson. She sought to claim against the local authority, and now appealed against a finding that it was not responsible, having contracted out the provision of swimming . .
CitedDurkin v DSG Retail Ltd and Another SC 26-Mar-2014
Cancellation of Hire Finance Contract
The claimant had bought a PC with a finance agreement with the respondent. He rejected it a day later, but the respondent refused to cancel the credit agreement. The respondent had threatened to report his non-payment to credit reference companies, . .
CitedMorris-Garner and Another v One Step (Support) Ltd SC 18-Apr-2018
The Court was asked in what circumstances can damages for breach of contract be assessed by reference to the sum that the claimant could hypothetically have received in return for releasing the defendant from the obligation which he failed to . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Leading Case

Updated: 10 November 2021; Ref: scu.181083