Smith v Charles Baker & Sons (1891): A case summary
- Case name & citation: Smith v Charles Baker & Sons (1891) A.C. 325 (HL) [ Also known as Stone Quarry Case]
- Plaintiff: Mr. Smith
- Defendant: Charles Baker & Sons
- Jurisdiction: The House of Lords, UK
- The bench of judges: Lord Halsbury, L.C., Lord Herschell
Smith v Charles Baker & Sons is one of the famous case laws through which the significance of the defense of consent (or volenti non fit injuria) was somewhat reduced in employment cases.
What is the case about?
The case throws light on the applicability of ‘volenti non fit injuria’ in a situation where the plaintiff has mere knowledge of the risk without its assumption.
Facts of the case
In this case, the plaintiff was a worker hired by the defendant to operate a drill for the purpose of cutting a rock. Stones were transferred from one side to the other using a crane, and each time the stones were conveyed, the crane passed over the plaintiff’s head. A stone fell from the crane and injured him while he was working. Although the plaintiff was generally aware of the risk, the employers were negligent in failing to warn him at the time of a recurring danger (i.e., at the moment when the crane started to pass through). It was claimed that the plaintiff was willingly working in the quarry despite being aware of the danger to which he was exposed. He knew the danger to which he was exposed.
The issue raised before the Court
Can the defendant take the plea of ‘volenti non fit injuria’?
Relevant principle (Mere knowledge of the risk without the assumption of it)
Consent, also sometimes referred to as the assumption of risk, is a defense to an action in tort. The legal maxim ‘volenti non fit injuria’ (no harm is done to one who is willing) explains this. It says that the defendant may avoid his liability by taking the defense that the plaintiff himself consented to the injury or voluntarily agrees to suffer harm.
However, it must be remembered that the mere knowledge of risk is not the same as the consent to bear that risk. To use knowledge as a defense, first, it is important to show that the plaintiff was aware of the risk and second that, knowing the same, he agreed to bear the risk of the injury. Therefore, mere knowledge of the risk is not sufficient to take defense against an action (Scienti non fit injuria). There has to be perception, appreciation, and acceptance of the risk. It is not true to argue that no harm is done to someone who consciously commits an act, even if he makes no attempt to prevent or avoid the act or danger.
Judgement in ‘Smith v Charles Baker & Sons’
As per the decision of the House of Lords, the plaintiff had not deliberately undertaken the risk. As a result, the mere knowledge or simple understanding of the risk without the assumption of it does not aid in the application of the maxim ‘volenti non fit injuria’. It must be demonstrated that the plaintiff agreed or comprehended that the risk should be borne by him. It must be shown that the employee recognized the nature of the risk he was taking and that the accident occurred as a result of a danger that was both anticipated and accepted.
The Court further held that a master is not liable to his servant for injuries caused by any ordinary risk of or incidental to the service. However, the master is required to take all reasonable care to ensure the safety of his workers and to carry out his activities in such a way that he does not expose those who work for him to any unnecessary risk. Similarly, negligent or careless use of perfectly safe machinery may hold the employer accountable. If, though, the employer fails in his obligation to the employee, and the employee does not directly refuse to continue his service, it may not be assumed that he is willing to bear the risk, if any, emanating from the employment.
In the instant case, there was a negligent practice of swinging stones over the workmen’s heads with the help of a crane, thus exposing them to unnecessary danger.
Therefore, the plaintiff was entitled to recover damages.
Conclusion (Smith v Charles Baker & Sons)
From the above case and its judgement, the following conclusion can be drawn:
Consent cannot be inferred from knowledge of the risk; it must also be demonstrated that the plaintiff accepted the risk freely and voluntarily. To prove the defense, the defendant must show that the plaintiff not only had full knowledge of the risk but also willingly consented to take it. Therefore, an employee who continued to work despite knowing he was at risk of being injured by stones falling from an above crane cannot be said to assume the risk. And hence, the defense of consent shall not be applicable here.
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