Tomlinson v Congleton

Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council (2003): A case summary

  • Case name & citation: Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council and others [2003] UKHL 47
  • Jurisdiction: The House of Lords, UK
  • Year of the case: 2003
  • The bench of judges: Lord Hoffmann

What is the case about?

The case of Tomlinson v Congleton was a leading case that dealt with occupiers’ liability in the United Kingdom.

The comments laid down by Lord Hoffmann, in this case, have come to be seen as significant in the development of negligence law, and they have been frequently cited by judges in subsequent cases.

Facts of the case

The claimant was seriously injured while engaging in what may be broadly regarded as leisure activities that involved some degree of inherent risk.

More specifically, the claimant went to a country park owned & occupied by the defendant’s local authority, which had a lake formed and built in an old sand quarry. Despite the presence of warning signs prohibiting swimming, he dived into the lake, striking his head on the bottom and suffering critical injuries.

He then filed a claim against the Council (Congleton Borough Council), claiming that they had not done enough to restrict access to the lake.

It may be mentioned here that the claimant was held to be a trespasser and so the case fell under the Occupiers Liability Act of 1984.

Issue raised

Whether the premises posed a risk of danger against which protection ought to have been given to the claimant.

Should the Council have taken additional steps to reduce the risk?

Judgement of the Court in Tomlinson v Congleton

The claimant lost the case.

The strict ruling of the House of Lords was based on the justification that once he disregarded the no swimming signs, he had ceased to be a legitimate visitor and had committed trespassing; as a result, under the Occupiers Liability Act of 1984, the Council would have only been liable to him in respect of dangers that arose “due to the state of the premises”. Since there was nothing wrong with the state of the occupied land, no liability arose.

In other words, the claim failed from the start since it could not be established that there was a danger due to the state of the premises or anything done or neglected to be done on them.

According to the decision, Mr. Tomlinson was a person of full capacity who engaged in an activity that had inherent risk. Moreover, it was done voluntarily and without any coercion or inducement. The risk was that he might not complete the dive correctly and thereby injure himself. Similarly, a person who goes mountaineering runs the risk of falling or misjudging where to put his weight. In neither situation can the risk be attributed to the state and condition of the premises. Otherwise, any place can be deemed dangerous to a person who chooses to use it for a dangerous activity.

Lord Hoffmann went on to say that Mr. Tomlinson was injured because he chose to engage in an activity that had inherent dangers, not because the premises were in a dangerous state.

In the instant case, Mr. Tomlinson was familiar with the lake, and even if he wasn’t, the judge determined that it posed no dangers that one would not have expected (i.e., it was inherent or obvious danger). Also, swimming was banned in that lake and there was no question that the Council would have taken any additional precautions to ensure that trespassers did not use the lake. Hence, the sole risk arose from what he chose to do rather than from the state of the premises. That is, there was no risk that would have given rise to a liability under the 1957 or 1984 [Occupiers Liability] Acts.

Note: Even if the claimant was not a trespasser, the defendant would not be liable under the Occupiers Liability of 1957.

Themes behind the judgement

The comments of Lord Hoffmann can be seen as having two distinct but related views.

The first is that the provision of leisure facilities for individuals to enjoy is a community good that could be jeopardized if occupiers were subjected to severe liability if someone is injured while using such facilities. To put it another way, imposing liability may cause the Council to decide that maintaining these leisure facilities was unnecessary and that it would be better to close them, which would then affect the quality of many people’s lives. Therefore, the social utility of the defendant’s work can be seen as a relevant factor in determining liability.

The second underlying idea is that people need to have the freedom to choose whether or not to risk their own safety. Concerns about personal autonomy, free will, and risk-taking on an individual level are raised by this. Lord Hoffmann said that the claimant was freely and voluntarily doing an activity that involved an inherent risk. If people decide to climb mountains or swim or dive in ponds, that is their affair.

The conclusion drawn from Tomlinson v Congleton

The case of Tomlinson v Congleton made it clear that an occupier of land shall be under no obligation to prohibit people from assuming risks that are inherent in the activities they voluntarily choose to undertake on the land. As a result, an occupier bears no obligation for risks willingly accepted by the visitor or trespasser.

List of references:

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