Barrett v Ministry of Defence – Case Summary

Barrett v Ministry of Defence

Court of Appeal

Citations: [1995] 1 WLR 1217; [1995] 3 All ER 87; [1995] CLY 3681.


The claimant was the estate of an airman who died while at a party on a Naval airbase. Alcohol was provided at the base’s bar. The deceased became extremely drunk and fell unconscious. The deceased’s commanding officer was alerted to this. The officer instructed other airmen to place the deceased in his bunk and occasionally check up on him. The deceased later passed into a coma and asphyxiated to death on vomit.

The claimant argued that the Naval officer had owed the deceased a duty of care in negligence. It relied primarily on breaches of the safety and disciplinary codes adopted by the Navy, which required drunkenness to be discouraged.

  1. Did the Naval officer owe the deceased a duty of care, and on what grounds?

The Court of Appeal held in favour of the claimant. The Naval officer owed a duty of care from the moment he assumed responsibility for the deceased’s well-being (but not before). After this point, the officer had failed to take adequate steps to care for the deceased. They were therefore in breach of that duty. However, the deceased’s damages were reduced for contributory negligence.

This Case is Authority For…

A duty of care exists where a person assumes responsibility for the well-being of another.


The existence of the regulatory codes of practice was deemed irrelevant in this case. The Court noted that such codes do not automatically lead to a duty of care on their own.

In addition, the Court stated that other people should not be held responsible for how drunk another person voluntarily becomes. As such, there could be no duty of care requiring the commanding officer to discourage drinking. Nor could there be a duty to stop the deceased from drinking himself unconscious.