Lindsey County Council v. Marshall

[1936] 2 ALL ER 1076; (1935) 1 KB 516
Download Judgment: English

Ms. Marshall brought an action against the Lindsey County Council (the Council) for damages arising out of a breach of duty of care. She contended that the Council-operated Cleethorpes Maternity Home and its staff were negligent in failing to prevent the transmission of puerperal fever, in allowing her to be admitted to a shared ward despite knowing of a breakout in the hospital, and in not informing patients about the breakout.

The Council had admitted Ms. Marshall into their maternity home at Cleethorpes on 12 July 1933 for the delivery of her baby, which she was expecting soon. There had been two instances not less than a week before her arrival at the home where patients of the home had contracted puerperal fever, which was known to be dangerous and highly infectious. The patients had been severely affected by the ailment, and one of them had died of the fever. On the 13July, Ms. Marshall delivered her child. On 17July, four other patients developed the fever. On the next day, Ms. Marshall also contracted the disease. Subsequently, she was transferred to a larger, more specialized hospital for treatment. She suffered a great deal due to the infection.

At trial, Ms. Marshall was awarded damages of £750 by a jury, which found that the home should have screened its staff for the infection to prevent its transmission to the patients. This verdict was upheld on appeal to the Court of Appeal. The Council appealed to the House of Lords, arguing that it was not responsible for the failure of the maternity home staff to screen for the disease, and it was not negligent in admitting Ms. Marshall to the shared ward without warning her of the risk of puerperal fever.

The Court dismissed the appeal, holding that the Appellant or their staff knew or ought to have known that in admitting the Respondent to the home they were exposing her to the danger of infection. In the Court’s opinion, the nurses at the home were the agents of the Appellant, and there was no reason why the Appellant should not be held responsible for their failure to screen for puerperal fever or to warn the Respondent of the potential danger of being admitted to the ward.

Additionally, the Court rejected the Council’s arguments that it was unrealistic to warn the Respondent of the risk when she had arrived at midnight, and that they could not warn her for fear of distressing her, because the Council had had advance warning of her visit, and could have informed her husband or relatives of the risk.

The Appellant were consequently negligent in not duly warning her of the existence of the risk of puerperal fever.

“The appellants were carrying on a maternity home, and they were inviting prospective mothers to make use of the home for the purpose of their confinement. In those circumstances they owed a duty to those whom they invited into the premises to make those premises reasonably safe, or if there was any hidden danger of which they or their agents were or ought to have been aware, to give the persons so invited due warning of its existence.” [1936] 2 All ER pp. 1081-1082.

“The appellants were not providing any medical attendance for the respondent and there is no complaint that the nurses were guilty of any lack of skill or care in attending her. The complaint is that the appellants invited the respondent to a home, which they ought to have known was in a dangerous condition, and that they did not inform her of the facts which constituted the danger. In my judgment, there is nothing in the principle of the cases on which reliance is placed to absolve the appellants from their responsibility for that breach of duty.” [1936] 2 All ER pp. 1082-1083.

“What, then, is the duty cast upon a local authority in a case like the present? In my view it is their duty to provide a home reasonably fit and to provide proper accommodation in it, and if there have been circumstances known to them which might render the home not so fit, it is their duty to warn a person proposing to enter the home, of such circumstances. There is no absolute warranty that the home shall be fit. The question whether there has been negligence or breach of that duty is one for the jury on proper evidence. Was there in this case evidence upon which the jury could find as they did? I think there was.” [1936] 2 All ER pp. 1087-1088.