Valerie Tindall v Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police and Buckinghamshire County Council 2022
Why is the case important?
The Court of Appeal examined the principles that apply when considering whether a duty of care is owed by the police, and other public bodies, when exercising their statutory powers.
K’s car left a country road and overturned due to treacherous black ice. He waved a warning to approaching motorists, and then advised the police of the icy road surface.
The police erected a single “Police Slow” warning sign, and cleared the road of accident debris, before K departed to hospital. The police then removed the sign and left, with nothing left in place to warn traffic of the ongoing danger from black ice.
Tragically, around 20 minutes later, Mr Tindall was driving along the same stretch of road when an oncoming driver lost control on the black ice, leading to a head-on collision in which both drivers were killed.
The Chief Constable applied to strike out a claim for damages brought by Mr Tindall’s widow on the basis that it disclosed no reasonable cause of action. Master McCloud refused the application, regarding as crucial the earlier intervention of the police by erecting, and then removing, a warning sign.
The Chief Constable appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal upheld the Chief Constable’s appeal, and struck out the claim.
At common law, public authorities generally owe the same duties in tort as private individuals or bodies.
The Court emphasised that where a statutory authority (including the police) is entrusted with a power or duty by a statutory provision which does not specifically impose civil liability, it cannot generally be made liable for damage sustained by a member of the public by reason of its failure to exercise that power or duty.
In general, the duty of a public authority is to avoid causing damage, not to prevent future damage occurring which arises from causes for which the authority was not originally responsible, even if it knows of a danger that it has power to address.
The Court also stated that where a statutory authority has exercised its powers, but has done so ineffectually, it will not generally be liable if it fails to confer on the public a benefit or protection that would have come about had the authority acted competently.
The Court went on to confirm that the arrival of a public authority at a scene of potential danger does not create a duty of care to the public, even if the public have an expectation that the authority will intervene to tackle the potential danger, or the authority has in fact intervened in this way in the past.
Here the police did not assume any responsibility towards Mr Tindall through their actions. The Court concluded that there was no feature of this incident which would differentiate the police’s relationship with him from their relationship with any other road users.
The police did not create the danger presented by the ice, or make it worse, nor did they act negligently so as to influence K’s decision to leave the scene and stop warning other motorists of the danger. The Court’s view was the claim was bound to fail.
Following the Supreme Court decision in Poole there has been a string of successful strike out applications in cases where it was concluded that no duty of care was owed by social services departments (SSD’s) to children, where the SSD had not exercised its powers to prevent children being harmed by others.
The Tindall case is fact-specific, but does not establish any new principles. The Court expressly denied that the law is in a state of flux. The Courts will probably continue to be slow to find the existence of a duty of care on the part of statutory authorities to prevent harm arising from a danger for which the authority was not responsible.