Remoteness in English law

In English law, remoteness is a set of rules in both tort and contract, which limits the amount of compensatory damages for a wrong.

In negligence, the test of causation not only requires that the defendant was the cause in fact, but also requires that the loss or damage sustained by the claimant was not too remote. As with the policy issues in establishing that there was a duty of care and that that duty was breached, remoteness is designed as a further limit on a cause of action to ensure that the liability to pay damages is fairly placed on the defendant.



The traditional approach was that once a breach in the duty of care had been established, a defendant was liable for all the consequent damage no matter how unusual or unpredictable that damage might be. In Re Polemis[1] while docked, workers employed to unload the ship negligently dropped a plank into the hold, which struck something, causing a spark that ignited petrol vapour lying in the hold. The fire destroyed the whole ship. The Lords held that although the fire was not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the plank falling, there had been a breach of the duty of care and all damage representing a direct consequence of the negligent act was recoverable. It was determined that once some harm was foreseeable, the defendant would be liable for the full extent of the harm. That particular consequences are possible does not make them reasonably foreseeable. This will particularly be the case when there are a significant number of links constituting the chain. The more links, the less likely that consequence may be considered reasonably foreseeable.


However, in the The Wagon Mound (No 1)[2] a large quantity of oil was spilt into Sydney Harbour from the Wagon Mound and it drifted under the wharf where the claimants were oxyacetylene welding. The resulting fire caused extensive damage to the wharf and to vessels moored nearby. The Privy Council replaced the direct consequence test with the requirement that, in order to be recoverable, damage must be foreseeable in all the circumstances, thus, although pollution was a foreseeable consequence of the spillage, an outbreak of fire was not. Viscount Simonds held at pp 422–423:

A man must be considered to be responsible for the probable consequences of his act. To demand more of him is too harsh a rule, to demand less is to ignore that civilised order requires the observance of a minimum standard of behaviour.

He went on to say at p 423, that a man should be responsible for the necessary or probable consequences of his act (or any other similar description of them), "not because they are natural or necessary or probable, but because, since they have this quality, it is judged by the standard of the reasonable man that he ought to have foreseen them."

In Hughes v Lord Advocate[3] a child climbed down a manhole left uncovered and protected only by a tent and paraffin lamp. When he came out he kicked over one of the lamps, which fell into the hole and caused an explosion. The child was burned. Lord Reid said at 845,

So we have (first) a duty owned by the workmen, (secondly) the fact that if they had done as they ought to have done there would have been no accident, and (thirdly) the fact that the injuries suffered by the appellant, though perhaps different in degree, did not differ in kind from injuries that might have resulted from an accident of a foreseeable nature. The ground on which this case has been decided against the appellant is that the accident was of an unforeseeable type. Of course, the pursuer has to prove that the defender's fault caused the accident and there could be a case where the intrusion of a new and unexpected factor could be regarded as the cause of the accident rather than the fault of the defender. But that is not this case. The cause of this accident was a known source of danger, the lamp, but it behaved in an unpredictable way...

The Wagon Mound (No 1) test is less generous to claimants than the direct consequence test because it may impose an artificial limit on the extent of damages that can be claimed. To mitigate some of the potential unfairness of the rule, the courts have been inclined to take a relatively liberal view of whether damage is of a foreseeable type. In Lamb v. London Borough of Camden[4] a water main maintained by the Council broke, which caused extensive damage to the claimant's house. Because of the damage, the claimant moved out and squatters moved in, causing further damage to the house. The court held that the secondary damage caused by the squatters was too remote. The council was liable for the damage caused by the broken water main, but the land owner is responsible for keeping trespassers at bay. Lord Denning said at p636 that remoteness of damages is just a question of policy with the element of foreseeability being determined by what is perceived to be instinctively just. This means that the reasonable foreseeability test is not always appropriate for cases where the acts of the claimant may demonstrate some fault. Nevertheless, the courts can award damages based on foreseeability where public policy requires it, e.g. in the egg-shell skull cases such as Smith v Leech Brain & Co.[5]

Although some courts have on occasion adopted a more restrictive approach, the decision of the Lords in Jolley v Sutton London Borough Council,[6] suggests that the liberal approach is to be preferred. The council allowed an abandoned boat to remain on its land and, over a period of time, two boys began to paint and repair it. Unfortunately, the boat fell on one of the boys, seriously injuring him. The claimant's case was that the boat represented a trap or allurement. The council accepted that it had been negligent in not removing the boat but that it had not been foreseeable that two boys would try to jack up the boat and so move it from the cradle upon which it lay. Lords Steyn and Hoffman stated that it is not necessary to foresee the precise injury that occurred, but injury of a given description. "The foreseeability is not as to the particulars but the genus. And the description is formulated by reference to the nature of the risk that ought to have been foreseen." (at para 37) So, in Hughes it was foreseeable that a child might be injured by falling in the hole or being burned by a lamp or by a combination of both. Although the injuries were not actually sustained in a foreseeable way, the injuries that actually materialised fell within the predictable range. Thus, the Wagon Mound No.2 and Hughes are compatible. The former alleged that damage by burning was not damage of a description that could reasonably have been foreseen, while the latter asserted that the injury was not reasonably foreseeable. In both cases, the claimants could recover damages.

Novus actus interveniens


Contract and tort

International comparisons



See also


  1. Re Polemis [1921] 3 KB 560
  2. Overseas Tankship (UK) Ltd v Morts Dock and Engineering Co Ltd [1961] AC 388
  3. Hughes v Lord Advocate[1963] AC 837
  4. Lamb v. London Borough of Camden [1981] QB 625
  5. Smith v Leech Brain & Co [1962] 2 QB 405
  6. Jolley v Sutton London Borough Council [2000] 1 WLR 1082

External links

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