Atkinson v Newcastle & Gateshead Waterworks – Case Summary

Atkinson v The Newcastle and Gateshead Waterworks Company

Court of Appeal

Citations: (1877) 2 Ex D 441


The defendants were under a statutory obligation to maintain water systems supplying water to the a city. As part of this, they had to supply enough water to fireplugs. These fireplugs could be used by the occupants to put out fires. The defendant failed to keep the fireplugs properly supplied. As a result, the claimant was unable to put out a fire on his property, causing the buildings to burn down.

  1. Does breach of statutory duty necessarily lead to a private action for damages?

The Court of Appeal held in favour of the defendant. The claimant was not entitled to damages because the relevant statutory provision did not create a private cause of action.

This Case is Authority For…

Damage caused by a breach of statutory duty does not automatically give rise to a cause of action against the breaching party. Whether a statutory duty gives rise to a private civil action depends upon the purpose, intent and language of the particular statute.


If the statute creates alternative mechanisms for punishing the breach, then it is unlikely that there is also a private right of action. In this case, there was a public fine for the breach. This strongly influenced the Court of Appeal’s conclusions.

Cockburn LJ indicated that an Act of Parliament which creates a general duty on all citizens is more likely to give rise to a private action for breach than an Act of Parliament which imposes a duty on a single, private company.