Law Report: Police need not warn of road hazards: Ansell and another v McDermott and others - Court of Appeal (Lord Justice Nourse, Lord Justice Beldam and Sir John Megaw): 29 January 1993

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Police officers who come across a hazard on the highway which is a danger to drivers owe no duty of care to drivers to protect them from or warn them against hazards which were created by others or for which the officers were not responsible.

The Court of Appeal allowed appeals by the second and third defendants, the Chief Constables of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, from Mr Justice Garland's refusal to strike out the plaintiffs' claims against them.

At about 5am on 17 August, 1988, the first defendant drove his car over a length of aluminium tube which had fallen from the fourth defendant's articulated bulk carrier at a roundabout. The first defendant's fuel tank was ruptured and left a trail of diesel fuel on the road until he ran out of fuel.

A few minutes later police from the Hertfordshire constabulary followed the fuel trail until they came to the first defendant's stationary car. They notified Bedfordshire police that diesel fuel had been spilt but did not go to the roundabout.

At 5.20am a Bedfordshire police officer noticed the spillage and reported it to the Bedfordshire highways department. About 10 minutes later a car driven by the first plaintiff's wife skidded on the fuel and collided with a lorry. She died from her injuries. The first and second plaintiffs who were in the car were injured.

The first plaintiff claimed damages under the Fatal Accidents Acts, including an allegation that the chief constables were liable for breach of duty and negligence of their officers. The chief constables applied to strike out the claim on the ground that the officers going about their duties on the highway owed no duty of care to protect road users by warning or otherwise from hazards on the highway which they had not created or for which they were not responsible.

Bernard Livesey QC and Jeremy Stuart-Smith (Vizards) for the chief constables; Piers Ashworth QC and Jonathan Harvey (Bernard Pearce & Co, Waltham Cross) for the plaintiffs.

LORD JUSTICE BELDAM said that recent decisions had emphasised the inability of a single general principle to provide a practical test which could be applied to every situation to determine whether a duty of care was owed and, if so, what was its scope.

It was exceptional to find in the law a duty to control another's actions to prevent harm to strangers and where they were found they arose from special relationships.

When it was contended that such a special relationship arose out of duties carried out in the performance of a public office, the court must have regard to the purpose and scope of the public duties, whether they were intended to benefit a particular section of the public and whether such persons could reasonably place reliance on the fulfilment of the duties.

A duty of care in the present case would impose on a police force potential liability of almost unlimited scope. Not only would the class of persons to whom the duty was owed be extensive, but the activities of police officers which might give rise to the existence of such a duty would be widespread.

There was no sufficient distinction from the reasoning which led the House of Lords to reject the existence of duty in Hill v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire (1989) AC 53, to justify the imposition of a duty to act in the circumstances of the present case.

Further, the diversion of police resources and manpower, if a duty to take care of the extreme width and scope contended for by the plaintiffs were to exist, would extensively hamper the performance of ordinary police duties and create a formidable diversion of police manpower. Therefore the officers did not owe the plaintiffs a duty of care in the circumstances of the case.