Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd

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Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd
CourtHouse of Lords
Full case nameMaloco and Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd
Citation(s)[1987] UKHL 18, [1987] 2 WLR 480
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingLord Emslie, Lord Grieve, Lord Brand, Lord Keith, Lord Brandon, Lord Griffith, Lord Mackay and Lord Goff
Third parties, omissions, duty of care

Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd [1987] UKHL 18 was a House of Lords decision on duty of care in the tort of negligence. It was concerned in particular with potential liability for the wrongdoing of third parties.


Littlewoods Organisation Ltd bought a cinema in 1976. They intended to demolish it and build a supermarket. After some initial work in June it was unattended. Sometimes children broke in, and on one occasion vandals set fire to some old film, and the cinema itself. On 5 July 1976, vandals started a larger fire and the cinema burnt down, damaging a neighbouring cafe, billiard saloon and church. The neighbours claimed damages.

The instant court held the fire was reasonably foreseeable. Littlewoods appealed, arguing it had no knowledge of previous attempts to start the fires. The First Division of the Inner House of the Court of Session allowed Littlewoods' appeal, and the matter was appealed again to the House of Lords.


The House of Lords dismissed the appeals, and held that since there was nothing inherently dangerous about an empty cinema, i.e. it was not a source of risk. The only thing that could possibly have prevented a fire would be a 24-hour guard on the premises and that would be an intolerable burden to impose on the owners in this case. Mere foreseeability of damage was not sufficient basis to find liability.

Lord Goff said the following.


The law does not recognise a general duty of care to prevent others from suffering loss or damage caused by the deliberate wrongdoing of third parties. A closer relationship between defendant and the wrongdoer is required to establish such a duty. See e.g. Home Office v Dorset Yacht Co, where borstal officers were held liable for damage caused to the plaintiffs by borstal boys who were under their control.

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