Volenti non fit injuria? (or hell mend you!)

Photo by Davide Guglielmo on FreeImages

In Chapter 3 of Introductory Scots Law, I discuss the defences available to parties who have been accused of causing loss or injury by reason of them committing a negligent act.

One of the best known defences to an action for negligence is volenti non fit injuria. I often like to say to my students that, colloquially, this translates as the hell mend you defence! The pursuer has knowingly embarked on a reckless and dangerous course of action and has accepted the consequences of the risk. S/he has only himself to blame for the losses or injuries caused. For the defender in a civil action, volenti is a complete defence – unlike the concept of contributory negligence which is said to be a partial defence. 

The case law relating to this defence is well established and it’s probably worth mentioning some of the judgements where volenti has featured prominently:

ICI v Shatwell [1965] AC 656 two brothers were blown up while testing detonators before they had taken refuge in a safety shelter. The Shatwell brothers had acted in complete defiance of their employer’s instructions. The employer was able to rely on the defence of volenti and the claim for negligence was dismissed. 

McGlone v British Railways Board (1966) SC (HL) 1 – a 12 year old boy injured while climbing an electricity transformer on the defender’s property should have had the foresight and the presence of mind to know that he was engaging in a highly dangerous activity. The boy’s claim for damages was dismissed. 

Titchener v British Railways Board (1984) SLT 192, SC (HL) 34 – a 15 year old girl who was struck by a train while trespassing on the defender’s property could not rely on the defender’s negligence. She was old enough to know better i.e. she knew that the railway was a dangerous place. As in the previous two decisions, the girl’s claim for damages was dismissed. 

A recent case before the Sheriff Court’s All Scotland Personal Injury Court and the subsequent appeal to the Sheriff Appeal Court in Edinburgh illustrates whether it will be permitted to advance volenti as a legitimate defence to a breach of a duty of care.

Raybould v T N Gilmartin (Contractors) Ltd [2018] SAC (CIV) 31

Diane Raybould, a 59 year old woman with mobility problems, sustained injuries at her home in West Forth Street, Anstruther on 3 February 2015 while attempting to gain access to the property. The front door of the property led directly on to the pavement which, at the time of the accident, had been dug up by T N Gilmartin (the contractor). Fife Council had engaged the contractor to install street lighting. Mrs Raybould had been attempting to access her property via the front entrance. She was aware of the existence of the pavement works and there were barriers around the excavations. There were, however, no planks or boards laid down by the contractors to afford easier access to the property. In short: “The area was a mess.” The contractor argued that by attempting to navigate such an obviously dangerous obstruction, Mrs Raybould had voluntarily assumed the risk of harm or injury to herself. In other words, the contractor should have benefit from the defence of volenti non fit injuria.

The Hearing before the All Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court

At the Hearing in the Sheriff Court, Mrs Raybould’s claim for damages against the contractor was dismissed.

The Sheriff emphasised a number of issues which had clearly formed the basis of the judgement against Mrs Raybould:

  1. She was perfectly aware that there was no board or plank lying across the pavement excavations to assist her to access her home relatively safely;

2. She could not plausibly claim that she was unaware of the dangers of attempting to access her property via the front door;

3. She admitted that she felt a strong sense of apprehension or anxiety about any attempt to navigate the obstacles at her front door;

4. She had mobility problems and had to use a walking stick; and

5. She knew that pavement barriers had been placed by the contractors to deter people from using the footpath outside her home.

The Sheriff also found it compelling that Mrs Raybould could have chosen to enter her home via the property’s back door. In fact, there was no pressure of time on her to choose the front door and she never said that she was unable to use the back door to the property.

The Sheriff was strongly of the opinion that Mrs Raybould had been unable to demonstrate that the contractor’s acts or omissions had caused her to fall and sustain injury. Therefore, any alleged breach of the duty of care on the part contractor could not be said to be the proximate cause of the accident. If anything, the proximate cause of Mrs Raybould’s injuries was her decision to attempt a dangerous crossing of the pavement to gain access to her front door.

Interestingly, the Sheriff also entertained the possibility that, if the defence of volenti could not be relied upon by the contractor, the partial defence of contributory negligence would be appropriate in that Mrs Raybould would be 80% liable for her injuries.

(We shall return to the issue of contributory negligence later in this Blog when we discuss the findings of the Sheriff Appeal Court).

Taking all these factors into consideration, the Sheriff concluded that the contractor should be allowed to rely on the defence of volenti non fit injuria. Consequently, Mrs Raybould’s action for damages was dismissed and she was ordered to pay the costs of the contractor.

Mrs Raybould was, however, permitted to appeal to the Sheriff Appeal Court in Edinburgh on a point of law.

The Appeal

Sheriff Principal Stephen QC gave the opinion of the court which overturned the Sheriff’s original decision in favour of T N Gilmartin. In no way could it be said that Mrs Raybould had waived or released T N Gilmartin from its duty of care to her. The contractor was, therefore, liable in damages to Mrs Raybould. That said, however, it was clear that Mrs Raybould had contributed equally to the negligence by the contractor and, consequently, any damages payable should be reduced by 50% as per the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945.

The Sheriff had correctly stated that Mrs Raybould’s conduct was in some way to blame for her injuries, but he had also failed to assess the blameworthiness of the contractor (as per the guidelines laid down in the UK Supreme Court’s decision in Jackson v Murray [2015] UKSC 5). In Jackson, the UK Supreme Court stressed the importance of assessing the blameworthiness of all the relevant parties in situations where contributory negligence applied.

Sheriff Principal Stephen QC made the following remarks:

“Volenti, in effect, amounts to a waiver by the pursuer of the defenders’ liability to her in damages. There must be proof that the pursuer knew of the risk (sciens) and also that she accepted the risk or voluntarily assumed the risk (volens). In this case there is no suggestion that the pursuer either implicitly or explicitly gave any such waiver or that the circumstances would allow the court to infer that the pursuer has impliedly consented to take the risk. It is accepted on behalf of the defenders that the pursuer was not asked about “waiver” or whether she was prepared to absolve the contractors of any liability they may have towards her.”

The learned judge went on to observe that:

“It is a common place activity and foreseeable that a householder such as the pursuer [Mrs Raybould] would seek to enter her home by the front door. The pursuer asked for assistance before proceeding. She used her stick to assist her by providing another point of contact with the ground. … The sheriff’s conclusion that volenti applies permeates his reasoning. However, we have found that volenti does not and cannot apply to the facts of this case.”

Interestingly, Sheriff Principal Stephen QC observed that the contractor had not actually advocated the defence of volenti in its pleadings before the Sheriff at the original hearing. In point of fact, it was the Sheriff who took it upon himself to introduce the defence of volenti! This was clearly an example of the Sheriff “innovating”.

Conclusion

At both the original trial and the appeal hearing, Thomson* and Stewart* were quoted with approval in relation to volenti. These authorities had made the point that volenti had a “very restricted application” and could provide a complete defence to a breach of a duty of care. In circumstances, where the defence of volenti is applicable, the pursuer must actually be aware of the risk and consent to the consequences of the defender’s breach of duty.

*(Thomson on Delict (Chapter 8); and Stewart: Reparation: Liability for Delict (Chapter 30)).

The Sheriff should not have entertained the issue of volenti in the first place. As Sheriff Principal Stephen QC stated: ” volenti does not and cannot apply to the facts of this case.”

The correct approach to take was that of contributory negligence.

A link to the opinion of the Sheriff Appeal Court can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2018-sac-(civ)-31.pdf?sfvrsn=0

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 26 January 2019

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sjcrossan1

A legal blog by the author of Introductory Scots Law: Theory & Practice (3rd Edition: 2017; Hodder Gibson) Sean J. Crossan BA (Hons), LLB (Hons), MSc, TQFE I have been teaching law in Higher and Further Education for nearly 25 years. I also worked as an employment law consultant in a Glasgow law firm for over a decade. I am also a trade union representative and continue to make full use of my legal background. Please note that this Blog provides a general commentary about issues in Scots Law. It is not intended as a substitute for in-depth legal advice. If you have a specific legal problem, you should always consult with a qualified Scottish solicitor who will be able to provide you with the support that you require.

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