Joint and several liability?

Photo by James Day on Unsplash

This week, purely by chance, I seem to be on a bit of a theme: discussing the legal implications of the Glasgow Bin Lorry Accident which occurred on 22 December 2019.

You can read about the events of that unfortunate incident by accessing the link below to my previous Blog:

The previous Blog discussed claims for psychiatric injuries in relation to the tragedy in Glasgow, but another legal action at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, stemming from these events, has just been determined this very week.

The case in question is Glasgow City Council v First Glasgow (No 1) Ltd [2019] CSOH 101.

It will be recalled that it was Harry Clarke, the driver of the bin lorry or refuse collection truck, who had suffered a blackout while driving due to an undisclosed medical condition. He had lost control of the vehicle and this had caused the accident which resulted in the deaths of 6 people and injuries to 15 more in Glasgow City Centre.

Glasgow City Council, Clarke’s employer, was vicariously liable for his negligence. This is now a question of fact. What was in dispute, however, was whether Clarke’s former employer (First Glasgow), a bus company where he was employed as a driver, should also bear liability for his role in the tragedy?

Why – you may well ask?

As Lord Ericht, the trial judge, noted the argument advanced by Glasgow City Council amounted to the following:

The sole ground on which this case is pled is a narrow one. The case is pled solely on the basis of section 3 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1940.’

Section 3 of the above Act addresses a situation where two defenders or more could be held jointly and severally liable for wrongful or negligent acts or omissions.

Glasgow City Council had already paid out substantial damages to the families of the deceased and to those who suffered injury on 22 December 2014 (£860,000 together with expenses of £43,714.40). The Council was now seeking to recover these sums in ‘their entirety’ from Clarke’s former employer.

There two issues in the case were as follows:

1. Whether it is necessary for a claim under the 1940 Act that both the pursuers and defenders be under a duty of care to the injured person; and

2. If the answer to the first issue is yes, did the defenders in this case have a duty of care to the injured person?

Essentially, the Council’s argument rested on First Glasgow’s knowledge of Clarke’s medical condition and the potential dangers that this represented if he continued to drive for a living.

Reference was made by the Council to a previous incident that occurred in April 2010:

On 7 April 2010, Clarke lost consciousness whilst driving a bus when engaged in the course of his employment with the defenders [First Glasgow]. The type of episode from which he suffered was similar to that which was ultimately suffered by him during the events [of 22 December 2014]. The incident was investigated by the defenders and it was known by them that he could present a risk to passengers and others should there be a repetition of the event. In the course of the investigation by the defenders, Clarke changed his story about where and how he had suffered the fainting episode. Any reasonable investigation would have revealed that he was being dishonest to those trying to assess his ability to drive.

In fact, the Council had sought a reference about Clarke from First Glasgow as to his suitability for employment. It was claimed by the Council that the reference request would almost certainly have asked for information about Clarke’s general health and any issues in this regard which would have impaired his ability to carry out driving duties. Unfortunately, the reference was not produced by the Council on the grounds that it had either been lost or misplaced.

The Council pointed out in its submissions to the Court of Session that First Bus should have informed it (as Clarke’s new employer) about the danger he represented if he was given a driving job. Had the full extent of Clarke’s health problems been notified to the Council, he would not have been allowed to continue in his employment as a driver. The Council would have then (possibly) sought to redeploy him in a non-driving role.

In this sense, the Council was attempting to rely upon the principle of foreseeability alone as creating the basis for a duty care owed to it by First Glasgow. Lord Ericht expressly rejected this reasoning by focusing on the tripartite test laid down by Lord Bridge in Caparo Industries PLC v Dickman [1990] UKHL 2 (a judgement of the House of Lords) which emphasised the following factors which need to be present in order to establish a duty of care:

  • foreseeability;
  • proximity; and
  • fairness, justice and reasonableness.

Significantly, Lord Ericht highlighted the fact that First Glasgow had issued the reference about Clarke to Glasgow City Council. It was, therefore, issued for the new employer’s benefit alone. It was not meant to benefit members of the public (a very broad class of people) and, critically, the public was completely unaware of the existence of said reference and could not in any way be said to have relied upon it.

In arriving at his decision, Lord Ericht made the following statement:

In order to succeed in its claim under section 3, the pursuers will have to establish that the defenders were directly liable to the injured party in negligence in respect of a reference given by the defenders to the pursuers. The issue which came before me for debate was whether as a matter of law, in the circumstances of this case, a previous employer who gives a reference to a new employer can be liable in negligence to a third party who is injured by the employee during the course of his new employment.”

His Lordship went on to say:

In my opinion for the 1940 Act to apply both parties must be liable to the injured person. Section 3(2) operates in situations where both A and B are liable to C. It does not operate where only A is liable to C, but B is liable to A.

Reference was also made by Lord Ericht to the decision of the House of Lords in Spring v Guardian Royal Assurance PLC [1994] UKHL 7 where the claimant, an ex-employee of Guardian Royal Assurance, was prevented from gaining new employment in the insurance industry because Guardian Royal provided a prospective employer of the claimant with a negligent employment reference. The reference claimed that the claimant had committed fraud while he had been working for Guardian Royal. This was not true, the claimant had merely been incompetent in carrying out his duties for Guardian Royal.

Held: by the House of Lords that Guardian Royal owed the claimant a duty of care and it was foreseeable that he would suffer harm as a result of the negligent reference. Clearly, the claimant and Guardian Royal had a special relationship – that of employer and employee.

To the disappointment of Glasgow City Council, Lord Ericht chose to distinguish Spring from the present case before him:

The case of Spring v Guardian Assurance established that an employer giving an employment reference owes to the employee who is the subject of the reference a duty of care and would be liable to the employee in negligence if he failed to do so and the employee suffered economic damage. In the present case, the court is being asked to go further and find that there is a duty of care to a third party who is neither the employee nor the recipient of the reference. This is an exercise which must be approached with great care.”

Interestingly, one of the issues raised by Counsel for First Glasgow was that it was under no duty to disclose the incident of 7 April 2010 to the Council (when Clarke fainted while driving) because doctors who had examined him stated that it was extremely unlikely to happen again.

In this respect, First Glasgow did not owe a duty of care to Clarke’s victims. Therefore, the provisions of Section 3 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1940 did not apply to this situation and the Council’s claim for damages from First Glasgow was dismissed.

A link to Lord Ericht’s Opinion in the Outer House of the Court of Session can be found below:

A link to an article in The Scotsman About the case can be found below:

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 13 December 2019

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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. I am a graduate and postgraduate of the Universities of Dundee, London and Strathclyde. 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 a suitably qualified Scottish solicitor who will be able to provide you with the support that you require.

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