Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd
|Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd|
|Court||House of Lords|
|Full case name||Maloco and Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd|
|Citation(s)|| UKHL 18,  2 WLR 480|
|Judge(s) sitting||Lord 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  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.
|“||That there are special circumstances in which a defender may be held responsible in law for injuries suffered by the pursuer through a third party's deliberate wrongdoing is not in doubt. For example, a duty of care may arise from a relationship between the parties, which gives rise to an imposition or assumption of responsibility upon or by the defender, as in Stansbie v Troman  2 K.B. 48, where such responsibility was held to arise from a contract. In that case a decorator, left alone on the premises by the householder's wife, was held liable when he went out leaving the door on the latch, and a thief entered the house and stole property. Such responsibility might well be held to exist in other cases where there is no contract, as for example where a person left alone in a house has entered as a licensee of the occupier. Again, the defender may be vicariously liable for the third party's act; or he may be held liable as an occupier to a visitor on his land. Again, as appears from the dictum of Dixon J. in Smith v Leurs (1945) 70 C.L.R. 256, at p. 262, a duty may arise from a special relationship between the defender and the third party, by virtue of which the defender is responsible for controlling the third party: see, for example, Dorset Yacht Co Ltd v Home Office. More pertinently, in a case between adjoining occupiers of land, there may be liability in nuisance if one occupier causes or permits persons to gather on his land, and they impair his neighbour's enjoyment of his land. Indeed, even if such persons come on to his land as trespassers, the occupier may, if they constitute a nuisance, be under an affirmative duty to abate the nuisance. As I pointed out in P Perl (Exporters) Ltd v Camden London BC  QB 342 at p. 359, there may well be other cases.
These are all special cases. But there is a more general circumstance in which a defender may be held liable in negligence to the pursuer, although the immediate cause of the damage suffered by the pursuer is the deliberate wrongdoing of another. This may occur where the defender negligently causes or permits to be created a source of danger, and it is reasonably foreseeable that third parties may interfere with it and, sparking off the danger, thereby cause damage to persons in the position of the pursuer.
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.