Thompson v Smiths Shiprepairers (North Shields) Ltd: QBD 1984

The test to be applied in determining the time at which an employer’s failure to provide protection constituted actionable negligence was what would have been done at any particular time by a reasonable and prudent employer who was properly but not extraordinarily solicitous for his workers’ safety in the light of what he knew or ought to have known at the time. Lord Devlin’s statement of the law as to concurrent tortfeasors ‘does not . . demand the conclusion that where the court knows that the initial stage of the damage was caused by A (and not B) and that the latter stage was caused by B (and not A), it is obliged by law to proceed (contrary to the true facts) on the assumption that the faults of each had caused the whole damage.’ and ‘I see no reason why the present impossibility of making a precise apportionment of impairment and disability in terms of time, should in justice lead to the result that the defendants are adjudged liable to pay in full, when it is known that only part of the damage was their fault. What justice does demand, to my mind, is that the court should make the best estimate it can, in the light of the evidence, making the fullest allowances in favour of the plaintiffs for the uncertainties known to be involved in any apportionment.’
Mustill J adopted and developed the statement of Swanwick J: ‘I shall direct myself in accordance with this succinct and helpful statement of the law, and will make only one additional comment. In the passage just cited, Swanwick J drew a distinction between a recognised practice followed without mishap, and one which in the light of common sense or increased knowledge is clearly bad. The distinction is indeed valid and sufficient for many cases. The two categories are not, however, exhaustive: as the present actions demonstrate. The practice of leaving employees unprotected against excessive noise had never been followed ‘without mishap.’ Yet even the plaintiffs have not suggested that it was ‘clearly bad,’ in the sense of creating a potential liability in negligence, at any time before the mid-1930s. Between the two extremes is a type of risk which is regarded at any given time (although not necessarily later) as an inescapable feature of the industry. The employer is not liable for the consequences of such risks, although subsequent changes in social awareness, or improvements in knowledge and technology, may transfer the risk into the category of those against which the employer can and should take care. It is unnecessary, and perhaps impossible, to give a comprehensive formula for identifying the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Nevertheless, the line does exist, and was clearly recognised in Morris v West Hartlepool Steam Navigation Co Ltd [1956] AC 552. The speeches in that case show, not that one employer is exonerated simply by proving that other employers are just as negligent, but that the standard of what is negligent is influenced, although not decisively, by the practice in the industry as a whole. In my judgment, this principle applies not only where the breach of duty is said to consist of a failure to take precautions known to be available as a means of combating a known danger, but also where the omission involves an absence of initiative in seeking out knowledge of facts which are not in themselves obvious. The employer must keep up to date, but the court must be slow to blame him for not ploughing a lone furrow.’


Mustill J


[1984] 1 QB 405, [1984] 1 All ER 881


England and Wales


CitedStokes v Guest Keen and Nettlefold (Nuts and Bolts) Ltd QBD 1968
An employee had been exposed at work over a long period to mineral oil which, on a daily basis, had saturated his clothing and come into contact with his skin. As a result of this he developed cancer of the scrotum from which he eventually died. The . .

Cited by:

AppliedHoltby v Brigham and Cowan (Hull) Ltd CA 6-Apr-2000
A claimant who sought damages for injuries suffered by the ingestion of asbestos whilst working for one employer, but had also worked for other periods for other employers where similar activities had been involved, had the onus in the claim to . .
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 . .
CitedWilsher v Essex Area Health Authority HL 24-Jul-1986
A premature baby suffered injury after mistaken treatment by a hospital doctor. He had inserted a monitor into the umbilical vein. The claimant suggested the treatment should have been by a more senior doctor. The hospital appealed a finding that it . .
CitedSienkiewicz v Greif (UK) Ltd; Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council v Willmore SC 9-Mar-2011
The Court considered appeals where defendants challenged the factual basis of findings that they had contributed to the causes of the claimant’s Mesothelioma, and in particular to what extent a court can satisfactorily base conclusions of fact on . .
CitedBaker v Quantum Clothing Group Ltd and Others SC 13-Apr-2011
The court was asked as to the liability of employers in the knitting industry for hearing losses suffered by employees before the 1989 Regulations came into effect. The claimant had worked in a factory between 1971 and 2001, sustaining noise induced . .
CitedZurich Insurance Plc UK Branch v International Energy Group Ltd SC 20-May-2015
A claim had been made for mesothelioma following exposure to asbestos, but the claim arose in Guernsey. Acknowledging the acute difficultis particular to the evidence in such cases, the House of Lords, in Fairchild. had introduced the Special Rule . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Damages, Negligence

Updated: 16 May 2022; Ref: scu.190109