Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council and others: HL 31 Jul 2003

The claimant dived into a lake, severely injuring himself. The council appealed liability, arguing that it owed him no duty of care under the Act since he was a trespasser. It had placed warning signs to deter swimmers.
Held: The council’s appeal succeeded. The risk of injury arose, not from any danger due to the state of the defendants’ premises, or to things done or omitted to be done on those premises, but from the claimant’s own misjudgment in attempting to dive in water that was too shallow. This was not a risk that gave rise to any duty on the defendants’ part and that, in any event, it had not been a risk in respect of which the defendants might reasonably have been expected to afford the claimant protection. The dangers were signposted, and therefore the 1957 Act did not apply. Under the 1984 Act, the question was whether there was a difference between someone whose entry to the property was as a trespasser, and someone who having entered property lawfully, became a trespasser after by acting outside the terms of the licence. There should not be a difference, and nor should the authority be required to take greater steps than they had to prevent others taking risks which were obvious.
Lord Hoffmann said why the voluntary assumption of risk was a complete answer to his claim: ‘I think it will be extremely rare for an occupier of land to be under a duty to prevent people from taking risks which are inherent in the activities they freely choose to undertake upon the land. If people want to climb mountains, go hand-gliding or swim or dive in ponds or lakes, that is their affair. Of course the landowner may for his own reasons wish to prohibit such activities. He may think that they are a danger or inconvenience to himself or others. Or he may take a paternalistic view and prefer people not to undertake risky activities on his land. He is entitled to impose such conditions, as the Council did by prohibiting swimming. But the law does not require him to do so.
My Lords, as will be clear from what I have just said, I think that there is an important question of freedom at stake. It is unjust that the harmless recreation of responsible parents and children with buckets and spades on the beaches should be prohibited in order to comply with what is thought to be a legal duty to safeguard irresponsible visitors against dangers which are perfectly obvious. The fact that such people take no notice of warnings cannot create a duty to take other steps to protect them. I find it difficult to express with an appropriate moderation my disagreement with the proposition of Sedley LJ that it is ‘only where the risk is so obvious that the occupier can safely assume that nobody will take it that there will be no liability’. A duty to protect against obvious risks or self-inflicted harm exists only in cases in which there is no genuine and informed choice, as in the case of employees whose work requires them to take the risk, or some lack of capacity, such as the inability of children to recognise danger (Herrington v British Railways Board [1972] AC 877) or the despair of prisoners which may lead them to inflict injury on themselves: Reeves v Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis [2000] 1 AC 360.’


Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, Lord Hoffmann, Lord Hutton, Lord Hobhouse of Woodborough, Lord Scott of Foscote


[2003] UKHL 47, Times 01-Aug-2003, Gazette 11-Sep-2003, [2003] 3 WLR 705, [2004] 1 AC 46, [2003] NPC 102, [2003] 32 EGCS 68, [2003] 3 All ER 1122, [2004] PIQR P8


Bailii, House of Lords


Occupier’s Liability Act 1984 1, Occupier’s Liability Act 1957 2


England and Wales


Appeal fromTomlinson v Congleton Borough Council and Another CA 14-Mar-2002
The claimant was injured swimming in a lake in a park. Warning signs clearly indicated that the lake was dangerous for swimming.
Held: The authority were liable. They knew that the lake was attractive to swimmers, and that the signs were . .
CitedHillen and Pettigrew v ICI (Alkali) Ltd HL 1936
Stevedores who were lawfully on a barge for the purpose of discharging it, nevertheless became trespassers when they went onto an inadequately supported hatch cover in order to unload some of the cargo. They knew that they ought not to use the . .
CitedDonoghue v Folkestone Properties Limited CA 27-Feb-2003
The claimant had decided to go for a midnight swim, but was injured diving and hitting a submerged bed. The landowner appealed a finding that it was 25% liable. The claimant asserted that the defendant knew that swimmers were common.
Held: The . .
CitedBritish Railways Board v Herrington HL 16-Feb-1972
Land-owner’s Possible Duty to Trespassers
The plaintiff, a child had gone through a fence onto the railway line, and been badly injured. The Board knew of the broken fence, but argued that they owed no duty to a trespasser.
Held: Whilst a land-owner owes no general duty of care to a . .
CitedStaples v West Dorset District Council CA 5-Apr-1995
There was no duty of care on a landowner to warn of obvious danger on Lyme Regis Cobb. The quay clearly dangerous for anyone to see. . .
CitedOverseas 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, . .
CitedDarby v National Trust CA 29-Jan-2001
The claimant’s husband drowned swimming in a pond on the National Trust estate at Hardwick Hall. Miss Rebecca Kirkwood, the Water and Leisure Safety Consultant to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, gave uncontradicted evidence, which . .
CitedBolton v Stone HL 10-May-1951
The plaintiff was injured by a prodigious and unprecedented hit of a cricket ball over a distance of 100 yards. He claimed damages in negligence.
Held: When looking at the duty of care the court should ask whether the risk was not so remote . .
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 . .
CitedStevenson v Glasgow Corporation 1908
Lord M’Laren said: ‘in a town, as well as in the country, there are physical features which may be productive of injury to careless persons or to young children against which it is impossible to guard by protective measures. The situation of a town . .
CitedHastie v Magistrates of Edinburgh 1907
There are certain risks against which the law, in accordance with the dictates of common sense, does not give protection – such risks are ‘just one of the results of the world as we find it’. . .
CitedGlasgow Corporation v Taylor HL 18-Nov-1921
A father brought an action for damages for the death of his son who had eaten poisonous berries growing in one of the defenders’ public parks. The plants were easily accessible from a children’s play area and it was said that the defender had a duty . .
CitedCotton v Derbyshire District Council CA 20-Jun-1994
No notice warning of danger was necessary on a public right of way for an obviously dangerous cliff. The Court upheld the decision of the trial judge dismissing the plaintiff’s claim for damages for serious injuries sustained from falling off a . .
CitedKarl Andrew Whyte v Redland Aggregates Limited CA 27-Nov-1997
The appellant dived into a disused gravel pit and struck his head on an obstruction on the floor of the pit. The Court dismissed his appeal that he was not entitled to damages.
Held: ‘In my judgment, the occupier of land containing or bordered . .
CitedBartrum v Hepworth Minerals and Chemicals Limited QBD 1984
The claimant dived from a ledge on a cliff. In order to avoid shallow water he knew that he had to dive out into the pool but he failed to do so and fractured his neck.
Held: The court dismissed his claim for damages saying ‘So far as the Act . .

Cited by:

CitedSimonds v Isle of Wight Council QBD 23-Sep-2003
The claimant sought damages, having been injured at a school sports day. The school had carried out a risk asessment and acknowledged a risk of injury.
Held: Not every risk identified could or should be controlled. The injury occurred whilst . .
CitedGorringe v Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council HL 1-Apr-2004
Statutory Duty Not Extended by Common Law
The claimant sought damages after a road accident. The driver came over the crest of a hill and hit a bus. The road was not marked with any warning as to the need to slow down.
Held: The claim failed. The duty could not be extended to include . .
CitedSandhar, Murray v Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions QBD 19-Jan-2004
The claimant asserted a common law duty on the respondent to maintain a roadway free of frost.
Held: No such common law duty existed. Where parliament has conferred a discretionary power, ‘ . . the minimum preconditions for basing a duty of . .
CitedJane Marianne Sandhar, John Stuart Murray v Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions CA 5-Nov-2004
The claimant’s husband died when his car skidded on hoar frost. She claimed the respondent was liable under the Act and at common law for failing to keep it safe.
Held: The respondent had not assumed a general responsibility to all road users . .
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 . .
CitedHampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club and Another v Corporation of London and Another Admn 26-Apr-2005
Swimmers sought to be able to swim unsupervised in an open pond. The authority which owned the pond on Hampstead Heath wished to refuse permission fearing liability for any injury.
Held: It has always been a principle of the interpretation of . .
CitedKeown v Coventry Healthcare NHS Trust CA 2-Feb-2006
The claimant a young boy fell from a fire escape on the defendant’s building. He suffered brain damage and in later life was convicted of sexual offences.
Held: His claim failed: ‘there was no suggestion that the fire escape was fragile or had . .
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 . .
CitedJL, Regina (on the Application of) v Secretary of State for Justice; Regina (L (A Patient)) v Secretary of State for the Home Department HL 26-Nov-2008
The prisoner was left with serious injury after attempting suicide in prison. He said that there was a human rights duty to hold an investigation into the circumstances leading up to this.
Held: There existed a similar duty to hold an enhanced . .
CitedGeary v JD Wetherspoon Plc QBD 14-Jun-2011
The claimant, attempting to slide down the banisters at the defendants’ premises, fell 4 metres suffering severe injury. She claimed in negligence and occupiers’ liability. The local council had waived a requirement that the balustrade meet the . .
CitedHelena Partnerships Ltd v HM Revenue and Customs CA 9-May-2012
The company had undertaken substantial building works and sought associated tax relief. The court was asked whether, following a change in the company’s memorandum and articles of association, the company, a registered social landlord, remained a . .
CitedHarvey v Plymouth City Council CA 29-Jul-2010
The Council appealed against a finding of liability under the 1957 Act after the claimant was injured after jumping over a fence to flee hving to pay a taxi, and falling down a steep slope onto a car park. The land had been licenced to the . .
CitedCockbill v Riley QBD 22-Mar-2013
The claimant sufferd catastrophic injury diving into a paddling pool at a party held by the defendant for his daughter to celebrate completing her GCSEs.
Held: The claim failed. ‘It was reasonably foreseeable that someone would lose his . .
CitedUren v Corporate Leisure (UK) Ltd CA 2-Feb-2011
The claimant suffered injury at a competitive fun day organised by his employers, the RAF at a facility of the respondents. He struck his head diving into a very shallow inflatable pool. He appealed against dismissal of his claim.
Held: The . .
CitedOvu v London Underground Ltd (Duty of Care) QBD 13-Oct-2021
Safety of Stairs within Undergrounds Care of duty
The Claimant sued the London Underground company because their relative Mr Ovu died after falling down stairs on a fire escape. It was late at night and he wandered on his own on a cold night, outdoors, onto the stairs. The staircase was in good . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Land, Torts – Other

Leading Case

Updated: 24 April 2022; Ref: scu.185424