Re Polemis & Furness, Withy & Co Ltd

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Re Polemis & Furness, Withy & Co Ltd [1921] 3 KB 560 is a famous English tort case on causation and remoteness. The Court of Appeal held that a defendant can be held liable for all consequences flowing from the wrongful conduct regardless of how unforeseeable. The case is an example of the application of strict liability, a concept which has generally fallen out of favour with the English courts. The case is now considered "bad law", having been overtaken by the decisions Donoghue v Stevenson in 1932 and the Wagon Mound (No 1) in 1961.

Facts[edit]

The defendant's employees were loading cargo into a ship. Due to an employee's negligence, a plank fell into the hold of the ship. The plank caused a spark, which ignited some petrol vapour in the hold, causing an explosion that resulted in the loss of the ship.

Judgment[edit]

The Court held that the defendant was liable. Although the fire itself may not have been foreseeable, it was held that the defendant would nevertheless be liable for all direct consequences of his actions. The court reasoned that if the act would or might probably cause damage,the fact that the damage it in fact causes is not the exact kind of damage one would expect is immaterial, so long as the damage is in fact directly traceable to the negligent act and not due to the operation of independent causes.

Significance[edit]

This decision was disapproved of, and its test replaced, in the later decision of the Privy Council in the Wagon Mound (No. 1) [1961].[1] Re Polemis has yet to be overruled by an English court and is still technically "good law". However, it was disapproved by the Privy Council, whose decisions are not binding but are strongly persuasive on English courts. The upshot is that the strict liability principle in Re Polemis has not been followed, and the case may be considered "bad law".

The method of determining negligence is whether the defendant could have foreseen harm through his/her actions. In this case, it is clear that it was negligent to discharge cargo to knock down the planks for they might cause some damage to the workers, cargo, or the ship. Once the defendant acts in negligence, he/she must take responsibility for all damages that the negligent act incurs. The key difference is that foreseeability is related to whether it was foreseeable to inflict harm through your action, not whether there was foreseeability in what type of harm you inflict.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Wagon Mound (No. 1) [1961] 1 All E.R. 404 (P.C.)