Honeywill & Stein v Larkin Bros – Case Summary

Honeywill and Stein Ltd v Larkin Brothers (London’s Commercial Photographers) Ltd

Court of Appeal

Citations: [1934] 1 KB 191.


The claimants were acoustics specialists who had just finished installing equipment in a third-party’s cinema. They obtained the permission of the cinema owner to take pictures of their work to use in their business. The defendant was hired as an independent contractor to take those photographs. The defendant used flashlight photography, which at the time was a dangerous process involving flammable and unstable chemicals. The photographer stood too close to the cinema curtain while taking the photographs, causing it to catch fire.

The cinema’s owners threatened to sue the claimant in negligence over the damage. The claimant agreed to pay them compensation, and then sought to recover that money from the defendant. The defendant argued that the claimant’s payment of compensation was voluntary, since the claimant would not have been found liable in negligence. This was because the claimant could not be held liable for the acts of independent contractors. As such, the defendant argued that they did not need to pay the claimant as they had not caused the claimant any loss.

  1. Is a person liable for the acts of an independent contractor in circumstances such as these?

The Court of Appeal held in favour of the claimant. If the cinema had sued the claimants, the claimant would have been liable for the defendant’s actions. The duty owed by the claimant to the cinema owners was not capable of delegation due to the extra-hazardous nature of the activity.

This Case is Authority For…

Ordinarily, a person is not liable for the acts of independent contractors. However, they may be liable where they employ independent contractors to engage in extra-hazardous activity involving special danger to others. The task of taking precautions to ensure others are not harmed by extra-hazardous activity cannot be delegated to another.

The duty created in this case is what modern law would refer to as a ‘non-delegable‘ duty. This is because the claimant had a duty to prevent harm resulting from the extra-hazardous activity, regardless of who caused it.


Lord Sumption in the Supreme Court decision in Woodland v Essex County Council [2013] UKSC 66 argued that the non-delegable duty created by this case is arbitrary and unprincipled. He suggested that it may no longer reflect modern law. However, this statement was obiter.