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Offer to Help Leads to Duty of Care
In general, a landowner does not owe a duty of care to people who voluntarily take risks while on the landowner's property. However, a recent case in the Court of Appeal has illustrated that this may not be the case if the landowner puts themselves in a position of responsibility towards the person taking the risk.
Mr Mark Morcom was fitting insulation to a loft hatch at the house of an elderly man, Mr Cyril Biddick, for whom he had frequently worked. The hatch was opened by pulling it downwards with a pole, which was also used to lock and unlock it. Mr Biddick was concerned that the vibrating drill Mr Morcom would be using might cause the lock to unfasten. He therefore offered to hold the pole against the hatch to ensure that the lock remained in position whilst Mr Morcom was working on the hatch.
Mr Biddick was carrying out this task when he heard the telephone ringing and went to answer it. While he was on the telephone, Mr Morcom fell through the hatch and was seriously injured.
Mr Morcom sought damages for the injuries he sustained. Mr Biddick had passed away by the time the case came to trial, so the claim was defended by his relatives. The judge concluded that the most likely explanation for the hatch coming open was that the lock had worked itself loose, which would not have happened if Mr Biddick had not gone to answer the telephone. The judge also found that Mr Biddick had assumed a duty of care to Mr Morcom in agreeing to hold the lock in place, which he had then breached by leaving his post. However, as Mr Morcom was an experienced tradesman and was carrying out the work in an unsafe manner, the damages award was reduced by two thirds due to contributory negligence.
Mr Biddick's relatives appealed against the finding that he was liable to Mr Morcom, and Mr Morcom cross-appealed, arguing that the reduction in damages due to contributory negligence was excessive. However, the Court of Appeal upheld the original judge's decision.