Baker v TE Hopkins & Son – Case Summary

Baker v TE Hopkins & Son Ltd

Ward v TE Hopkins & Son Ltd

Court of Appeal

Citations: [1959] 1 WLR 966; [1959] 3 All ER 225; (1959) 103 SJ 812; [1959] CLY 2274.


The defendants were a company contracted to clean a well. As part of this, they installed an engine within the well which began to emit dangerous fumes. The onsite manager told the employees to stop work inside the well until he arrived to check the well. Two employees ignored this and continued work inside the well. They were killed by exposure to the fumes. A doctor attempting to save them was also killed after his rope became stuck and he could not be pulled out of the well in time.

  1. Was the employees’ decision to ignore the manager’s warning a novus actus interveniens?
  2. Was the doctor’s decision to try to save the employees a novus actus interveniens?
  3. Did the defence of contributory negligence apply in relation to the doctor?

The Court of Appeal held in favour of the claimants. None of the deceased’s acts had been novus actus interveniens. The doctor’s decision to try to save the men was not contributory negligence.

This Case is Authority For…

Where the defendant creates a very dangerous situation, warning people not to go near may be insufficient to discharge their duty. Any warning should properly enable the other party to understand why the situation is dangerous. If a warning is inadequate, then the fact that another person ignored it will not necessarily constitute a novus actus interveniens.

In the present case, the warning had been vague. The employees had plainly not understood the extreme danger they were in. For this reason, their decision to enter the well was not a novus actus interveniens.

If it is reasonably foreseeable that a person might be harmed trying to rescue another from a dangerous situation that the defendant created, this will not constitute a novus actus interveniens.

The acts of a rescuer trying to save people from an emergency situation will not normally constitute contributory negligence. Such acts will only be contributorily negligent if they are ‘so foolhardy as to amount to a wholly unreasonable disregard for [the claimant’s] own safety.’ (Omerod LJ)