This case, Tolley v Carr [2010] EWHC 2191, is a bit old but I’ve only just come across it.  It’s a decision of a single judge in the UK so not a significant precedent and not really saying anything new about the law, but it’s a legal good news story (though not good by any means for the injured Mr Tolley) so I thought I’d report it anyway.

It must have been a bad weather day, even by UK standards on 21 November 2006.  It was 7.30am and the plaintiff, Tolley, was driving to work; he’d driven through a hailstorm and the road surface was ‘slippery’ when the driver of another car lost control and ‘spun out’ and ended up on the side of the road.  Mr Tolley stopped, got out and went to make sure the driver was uninjured.  As he was talking to the driver, another driver lost control and end up across north side of the multi-lane road almost touch a barrier dividing the north and south bound carriageways.  Mr Tolley approached the driver of that car. Appreciating the danger she was in he assisted her out of the car and off the side of road.

With the driver safe he realised that her car posed a danger to oncoming traffic and he resolved to move it.  In Mr Tolley’s opinion, and in the opinion of others who gave evidence, it was ‘only a matter of time’ before a car would collide with this vehicle.   Mr Tolley went to move it.  He was getting into the car, half in and half out, when he was struck by an oncoming vehicle and then by another vehicle.  He suffered significant and serious injuries including paraplegia following a spinal injury.  He sued the various drivers (really their insurance companies) seeking compensation for his damages.  The defendants (really their insurance companies) argued that he had contributed to his own injuries by his “wanton disregard for his own safety” (to use language from the earlier case of Baker v T E Hopkins & Sons Ltd [1959] 1WLR 966).

The court rejected that argument.   Readers of this blog, particuarlarly professional rescuers, would see the danger in Mr Tolley’s actions. They wouldn’t attempt to move the car until they had blocked the oncoming traffic with an emergency service vehicle with red/blue lights flashing and the assistance of police.  Mr Tolley didn’t have that option, and he was concerned “solely by his perception of that hazard and his wish to reduce the risk that it posed.  He had little thought at the time for his own safety.  He considered that there was a substantial risk to other motorists, who continued to drive at relatively high speeds on that carriageway and he instinctively acted to reduce that risk by taking steps to move the car” [31].

The judge said that common law acknowledged rescuers by recognising that those that cause accidents  owe a duty of care to those that come to assist, whether lay volunteers or members of the rescue services , and that “the law is slow and cautious in finding negligence in those who imperil themselves to save persons from risks caused by the negligence of others” [21].  He went on:

The law recognises that a rescuer may, in effecting or attempting to effect a reduction of risk to others, imperil of his own life and limb: and the greater the risk to others that he is trying to avert, the greater the imperilment to his safety the law will accept as reasonable.

The law appreciates that a rescuer may act – and may feel impelled to act – under the pressures of the moment, where delay may be considered vital to the safety of those he is considering protecting from risk.  It is not appropriate to subject a rescuer’s actions, or his subjective view of the risks involved to himself and/or to others, to fine scrutiny in the court room. [22]-[23].

Mr Tolley’s actions were motivated only by a desire to protect others, even though “[i]t is obvious to us now that, in the cold light of this court three and a half years after the event, that Mr Tolley was putting himself at risk in attempting to move that car” ([9]) his actions were reasonable in the circumstances and his damages would not be reduced by a claim of contributory negligence.

What is the value of this case?  For all rescuers it does remind us that the law is generous in the heat of the moment.  Professional rescuers however should not be overcome by the ‘heat of the moment’ the point of training, and equipping rescuers it to get past that adrenalin rush. They should take steps, and have the statutory authority, to close roads and take other measures to secure their safety in cases like this; but there will always be exceptions where drastic times call for urgent measures and the courts will be reluctant to find that a decision motivated by the need to protect others, even if unwise in hindsight, was negligent.

The case should be of even greater comfort to those that might, in circumstances out of their ordinary experience, have to stop and help others.  For the readers of this blog who might teach first aid classes for example, it is a case that may provide further reassurance to your students that if they are injured trying to help, the law will not seek to punish them or judge them too readily.

For further discussion on these principles, see “Death of a good Samaritan

Michael Eburn

20 March 2013