McGhee v National Coal Board

McGhee v National Coal Board, [1972] 3 All E.R. 1008, 1 W.L.R. 1, is a leading tort case decided by the House of Lords. The Lords held that where a breach of duty has a material effect on the likelihood of injury then the subsequent injury will be said to have been caused by the breach.


James McGhee was employed to clean out brick kilns and developed dermatitis from the accumulation of coal dust on his skin. Because there were no shower facilities at his workplace, he would cycle home each day, increasing the risk he would contract dermatitis. Had his employer provided shower facilities, the coal dust could have been washed off before cycling, reducing the risk of contracting dermatitis. Due to the limits of scientific knowledge, it was impossible to rule out the possibility that he hadn't contracted dermatitis during the non-wrongful exposure to brick dust while working in the kiln.

He sued his employer for negligence for breaching its duty to provide proper washing facilities. The issue before the House of Lords was whether the failure to provide the washing facilities had caused the rash.


The House of Lords held that the risk of harm had been materially increased by the prolonged exposure to the dust. Lord Reid stated:

"The medical evidence is to the effect that the fact that the man had to cycle home caked with grime and sweat added materially to the risk"

The material increase in risk was treated as equivalent to a material contribution to damage. The implication of the case was significant as it meant that a claimant need not demonstrate that the defendant's actions were the "but for" cause of the injury, but instead that the defendant's actions materially increased the risk of injury, and thus damage, to the claimant.

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