Breaking the Chain

Topics: English tort law, Tort, Causality Pages: 5 (2064 words) Published: September 27, 2011
Breaking the chain
Breaking the chain (or novus actus interveniens, literally "new act intervening") refers in English law to the idea that causal connections are deemed to finish. Even if the defendant can be shown to have acted negligently, there will be no liability if some new intervening act breaks the chain of causation between that negligence and the loss or damage sustained by the claimant. Discussion

Where there is only a single operative cause for the loss and damage suffered by the claimant, it is a relatively simple matter to determine whether that cause was a breach of the duty of care owed to the claimant by the defendant. But where the sequence of events leading to the loss and damage comprises more than one cause, the process of separating and attributing potential or actual liability is more complicated. Act of God and other natural events as contributing causes

Where there are several potential causes of harm, some of which are tortious and some of which are natural, the basic rule is that the claimant can succeed only if he or she proves on the balance of probabilities that the loss and damage is attributable to the tort: Wilsher v. Essex Area Health Authority [1988] AC 1074. In The Oropesa [1943] 1 All ER 211 a collision occurred in heavy seas between the Oropesa and the Manchester Regiment which was so seriously damaged that the captain sent fifty of the crew to the Oropesa. An hour later, he set off with sixteen of the crew to go to the Oropesa in another lifeboat. This lifeboat capsized in the heavy seas and nine of the crew drowned. The Manchester Regiment later sank. Relatives of the drowned seamen sued. The question was whether the action of the captain in leaving the Manchester Regiment broke the chain. It was held that the captain's action was the natural consequence of the emergency in which he was placed by the negligence of the Oropesa and, therefore, the deaths of the seamen were a direct consequence of the negligent act of the Oropesa. The question was not whether there was new negligence, but whether there was a new cause of action. To break the chain of causation there must be something "...unwarrantable, a new cause which disturbs the sequence of events, something which can be described as either unreasonable or extraneous or extrinsic." But, when negligence is followed by a natural event of such magnitude that it erases the physical effects of the original negligence, the defendant’s liability ceases at the moment in time when the supervening condition occurs. In Carslogie Steamship Co v. Royal Norwegian Government [1952] 1 All ER 20 the Carslogie collided with the Heimgar and admitted liability. Temporary repairs were effected with permanent repairs to be carried out later in the United States. After the collision but before crossing the Atlantic, the Heimgar was given a certificate of seaworthiness, authorising her to be continued in her present class without fresh record of survey, subject to permanent repairs at the owner's convenience. She was held fit to carry dry and perishable cargoes. While crossing the Atlantic, the Heimgar encountered heavy weather and sustained such serious damage as to become unseaworthy and to require immediate dry docking. Thus, prior to encountering the rough weather, the Heimgar was a seaworthy vessel, capable of earning profits for her owners. Repairs due to the collision and to the heavy weather, as well as the owner's repairs were all carried out at the same time. Ten of the fifty days in dry dock were allocated to the repair of the collision damage and the question for the House of Lords was whether the owners of the Carslogie were liable for that ten day loss of earning capacity. The claim was for damages because a working ship is "a profit-earning machine". If she ceases to earn a profit, it is essential to consider what caused the detention in dry dock at that time. In this case, the Heimgar was a profit-earning vessel before suffering the...
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