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When standards fall, the courts may f ind labourers responsible

LAW - If an accident occurs through your negligence, it is no defence to claim that your position as a mere labourer exempts you from blame ? even the law recognises this, eventually, writes James Bell

SOMETIMES a court's decision seems so out of step with common sense that you wonder if the law really is an ass.

The recent case of Raymond William James v Alan Butler is a good example, except that common sense eventually did prevail in the Court of Appeal.

Sometimes common sense just takes a while to get there.

The claimant, Mr James, wanted a conservatory built.

He bought a conservatory kit, complete with instructions, and just needed the labour to build it. Mr Butler ? a neighbour of Mr James and a man 'able to turn his hand to many types of building work' was to be paid £300 to erect the conservatory in his spare time.

Mr James was injured during the erection of the conservatory. The accident happened as the two men were fitting rafters to the roof of the conservatory, which was substantially built by this time.

Mr James went to make coffee while Mr Butler carried on working, fitting another rafter.

Mr James returned with the coffee a few minutes later and as he entered the conservatory he was struck in the eye and seriously injured by one end of a falling rafter.

Mr James sued Mr Butler for negligence, alleging that Mr Butler had caused the rafter to fall and had failed to warn Mr James as he entered the conservatory that the rafter was insecure and might fall. Mr Butler said that he had secured the rafter temporarily with a screw tightened by hand and was descending the ladder to get a screwdriver when Mr James re-entered the conservatory.

Remarkably, the court dismissed Mr James's claim. He had contended that Mr Butler was a professional contractor and should be judged accordingly. But the defendant, Mr Butler, countered that he was only a general labourer and that therefore less should be expected of him.

The judge preferred the defendant's argument on this point, judging his actions by the standards of a general labourer. Mr Butler had given evidence asserting that he believed the screw had bitten into the aluminium of the rafter and the judge found that it had been reasonable for him to hold that belief.

He concluded that it was reasonable for a general labourer to think that the rafter would be safe for a short time, acknowledging that more might have been expected of a professional contractor.

He added that, even if he were wrong about the main liability, he would have considered Mr James liable to 50 per cent contributory negligence on the basis that he ought to have asked Mr Butler's permission to enter the conservatory.

Mr James appealed against this decision. In the Appeal Court, the central issue would be the 'reasonable belief' defence that Mr Butler had successfully put forward.

The Court of Appeal was unwilling to overturn the judge's finding that Mr Butler should be judged as a general labourer. But on the other hand Lord Justices Smith, Rix and Sedley agreed that the distinction between general labourer and professional contractor was irrelevant to this case.

The point was best illustrated by an analogy drawn by the claimant's barrister: 'The negligent motorist who, having driven out of a side road into a main road and into collision with an approaching car, claims that he looked carefully both ways before proceeding.

The fact that he believes that he looked carefully does not avail him because he cannot have done so in fact. If he had done so he would have seen the car which was plainly there.' Lord Justice Sedley summed up the case in a few sentences:

'The fall of the rafter is consistent only with it having been inadequately secured? That being so, the defendant? will have been liable to the claimant for the consequences unless the defendant could establish that his failure to secure the rafter end had occurred without negligence on his part. There was no such evidence.' The trial judge's conclusion on contributory negligence was also overturned. Lord Justice Smith viewed it as unreasonable to expect Mr James to ask permission to enter the conservatory and concluded that in any event, had he asked to enter the conservatory Mr Butler would almost certainly have said 'yes' anyway.

If common sense should be the guiding principle of the law then the Court of Appeal's decision in this case must be welcomed.

The facts speak for themselves: the defendant could not have tightened the screw sufficiently. On that basis he was properly held liable for what happened when the improperly-secured rafter fell free.

The Court of Appeal awarded Mr James £45,000 in damages.

There are two lessons to be learned from this simple tale.

First of all, it is no defence to any claim to throw up your hands and say: 'I am just a labourer'. If you are being employed to screw things together, you should screw them together competently.

There is no more reason why a labourer should be excused for being incompetent than there is to excuse a contractor.

Secondly ? and this is a lesson for all of us ? while legally you do not need to ask the permission of your work colleagues to see if it is safe to enter a room, it sometimes might be wise to do so.

Key points

It is no defence to say you are simply 'a labourer' and that a lower standard of care should be applied than if you were 'a contractor'.

A person should not have to ask his work colleagues if it is safe to enter a room or other work area.

If it is unsafe he should be warned of the r isk? ?but it is a wise precaut ion to check with colleagues that it really is safe to enter a work area, whether you have been warned or not.