The Owners of the Steamship Mediana v The Owners, Master and Crew of the Lightship Comet: HL 1900

A lightship was damaged by negligence. The plaintiff harbour board kept a ship ready for emergencies, and consequently the damaged ship was replaced with the spare while she was being repaired. The question was whether the claimant could recover damages for the temporary loss of the damaged ship.
Held: A claim for loss of use will (at least potentially) lie whenever a chattel is damaged: ‘where by the wrongful act of one man something belonging to another is either itself so injured as not to be capable of being used or is taken away so that it cannot be used at all, that of itself is a ground for damages . . the broad principle seems to me to be quite independent of the particular use the plaintiffs were going to make of the thing that was taken, except – and this I think has been the fallacy running through the arguments at the bar – when you are endeavouring to establish the specific loss of profit, or of something that you otherwise would have got which the law recognises as special damage’.
The House explained the award of nominal damages: ”Nominal damages’ is a technical phrase which means that you have negatived anything like real damage, but that you are affirming by your nominal damages that there is an infraction of a legal right which, though it gives you no right to any real damages at all, yet gives you a right to the verdict or judgment because your legal right has been infringed.’
Lord Halsbury LC said ”Of course the whole region of inquiry into damages is one of extreme difficulty. You very often cannot even lay down any principle upon which you can give damages; nevertheless it is remitted to the jury, or those who stand in place of the jury, to consider what compensation in money shall be given for what is a wrongful act. Take the most familiar and ordinary case: how is anybody to measure pain and suffering in moneys counted? Nobody can suggest that you can by any arithmetical calculation establish what is the exact amount of money which would represent such a thing as the pain and suffering which a person has undergone by reason of an accident. In truth, I think it would be very arguable to say that a person would be entitled to no damages for such things. What manly mind cares about pain and suffering that is past? But nevertheless the law recognises that as a topic upon which damages may be given.
Now, in the particular case before us, apart from a circumstance which I will refer to immediately, the broad proposition seems to me to be that by a wrongful act of the defendants the plaintiffs were deprived of their vessel. When I say deprived of their vessel, I will not use the phrase ‘the use of the vessel.’ What right has a wrongdoer to consider what use you are going to make of your vessel? Here, as I say, the broad principle seems to me to be quite independent of the particular use the plaintiffs were going to make of the thing that was taken.’ Lord Halsbury gave an example of using his own chair: ‘Supposing a person took away a chair out of my room and kept it for twelve months, could anybody say you had a right to diminish the damages by showing I did not usually sit in that chair, or that there were plenty of other chairs in the room? The proposition so nakedly stated appears to me to be absurd . . what an arbitrator or jury very often do is to take a perfectly artificial hypothesis and say ‘well if you wanted a chair, what would you have to give for it for the period’; and in that way they come to a rough sort of conclusion as to what damages ought to be paid for the unjust and unlawful withdrawal of it from the owner. Here, as I say, the broad principle seems to me to be quite independent of the particular use the plaintiffs were going to make of the thing that was taken, except . . when you are endeavouring to establish the specific loss of profit, or of something that you would otherwise have got which the law recognises as special damages. In that case you must show it and by precise evidence . . But when we are speaking of general damages no such principle applies at all, and the jury might give whatever they thought would be the proper equivalent for the unlawful withdrawal of the subject matter then in question.’
Lord Halsbury LC
[1900] AC 113
England and Wales
Cited by:
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 . .
AppliedStoke City Council v W and J Wass 1998
The court decsribed the ‘user principle’ for awarding damages for inteference with land: ‘It is an established principle concerning the assessment of damages that a person who has wrongfully used another’s property without causing the latter any . .
CitedWatkins v Secretary of State for The Home Departmentand others CA 20-Jul-2004
The claimant complained that prison officers had abused the system of reading his solicitor’s correspondence whilst he was in prison. The defendant argued that there was no proof of damage.
Held: Proof of damage was not necessary in the tort . .
CitedCarlton Greer v Alstons Engineering Sales and Services Limited PC 19-Jun-2003
PC (Trinidad and Tobago) The claimant had bought an expensiv agriucltural tool (a hoe) from the defendants. It was defective and her returned it repeatedly for repair. Eventually they refused to allow him to test . .
CitedDevenish Nutrition Ltd and others v Sanofi-Aventis SA (France) and others ChD 19-Oct-2007
The claimant sought damages for the losses it had suffered as a result of price fixing by the defendant companies in the vitamin market. The European Commission had already fined the defendant for its involvement.
Held: In an action for breach . .
CitedPiper v Hales QBD 18-Jan-2013
The claimant owned a very vauable vintage Porsche racing car. It was hired to the defendant. The car suffered severe mechanical damage whilst being driven, and the insurers declined liability.
Held: The Defendant as hirer was under an . .
CitedWest Midlands Travel Ltd v Aviva Insurance UK Ltd CA 18-Jul-2013
The claimant bus operator sought damages after one of its buses was off the road for several weeks. It made a claim for general damages for loss of use, using for that purpose a formula produced by the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which, . .
CitedStoke-on-Trent City Council v W and J Wass Ltd CA 1988
The council had operated open markets on its land under statutory authority. In breach of the statute, the defendant operated a market on a different day, but within the excluded area. This was a nuisance actionable on proof of damage. The council . .
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 . .

These lists may be incomplete.
Updated: 17 July 2021; Ref: scu.188653