Dawson v Bingley Urban District Council
Court of Appeal
Citations:  2 KB 149.
The local authority had a statutory duty to provide, maintain and properly mark fire plugs for putting out fires. A fire broke out at the claimant’s property. The fire brigade were not able to find the fire plug for considerable time because the markings were incorrect. The fire caused far more damage that it would have done if the plug had been found quickly.
- Could the claimant sue the local authority for damages for breach of statutory duty?
The Court of Appeal held in favour of the claimant. The local authority was liable for breach of statutory duty.
This Case is Authority For…
Vaughan Williams LJ summarised the test for the existence of a damages claim for breach of statutory duty. He stated that while public authorities are not generally liable for breaches of statutes by omission,
‘the public body will be liable if by its acts it alters the normal condition of something which it has a statutory duty to provide or maintain and in consequence some person of a class for whose benefit the statutory duty is imposed is injured.’
In this case, the local authority had actively misled and impeded the fire brigade. The fact that the information was wrong harmed a person the duty was designed to protect: a damages action was therefore possible.
The fact that the local authority had acted negligently was a significant element of this case. The court indicated that the local authority would not have been liable had they merely failed to provide the fire plug at all.
Kennedy LJ distinguished Atkinson v Newcastle Waterworks (1877) 2 Ex D 441 as concerning a statutory duty imposed on a specific private company. He commented that a damages action is unlikely to arise where the duty is specifically imposed on a particular private company. However, it is more likely if the class of defendant subject to the duty is a public authority. He also noted that in that case the statute imposed penalties. This was another factor indicating that Parliament did not intend the breach to lead to a damages action.