Lambert v Lewis

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
JudgeLord Diplock,Lord Elwyn-Jones,Lord Fraser of Tullybelton,Lord Scarman,Lord Bridge of Harwich
Judgment Date08 April 1981
Judgment citation (vLex)[1981] UKHL J0408-1
Date08 April 1981
CourtHouse of Lords
Lexmead (Basingstoke) Limited
Lewis and Others

[1981] UKHL J0408-1

Lord Diplock

Lord Elwyn-Jones

Lord Fraser of Tullybelton

Lord Scarman

Lord Bridge of Harwich

House of Lords

Lord Diplock

My Lords,


This appeal arises out of a traffic accident, with tragic consequences, which took place as long ago as September 1972. A trailer carrying rubble became detached from a Land Rover belonging to the appellant ("the farmer") which was being driven by his servant along a road in Farnborough The trailer careered across the road and hit a car coming in the opposite direction. In it were the plaintiff, her husband who was driving, and their two children. Her husband and son were killed; the plaintiff and her daughter suffered relatively minor injuries. It has never been suggested that the husband was in any way to blame for the accident.


The plaintiff, acting on behalf of herself and as next friend of her daughter, and also as administratrix of the estates of her husband and her son, brought an action for damages against the farmer and also the driver of the Land Rover. (There is no need for any further mention of the latter.) She subsequently joined as additional defendants, the appellants to this appeal ("the dealers"), who had sold the trailer coupling to the farmer and fitted it on the Land Rover, and the second respondents to this appeal ("the manufacturers") who had manufactured the coupling. The farmer brought third party proceedings against the dealers and the dealers in turn brought fourth party proceedings against the manufacturers. The appeal to your Lordships House is brought in these third and fourth party proceedings alone.


Damages had been agreed at £45,000 before the action eventually came on for trial before Mr. Justice Stocker in October 1977. The only issue was as to how the liability for the agreed damages should be allocated between the various defendants. The hearing lasted ten days, much of the time being spent on expert engineering evidence about the design and manufacture of the coupling and the cause of its having become detached at the time of the accident.


The clear and careful judgment of Stocker J., which is reported at [1978] 1 Lloyd's L.R. 810 and to which reference can be made, contains a detailed description of the mechanical nature of the coupling. For the purposes of this appeal, however, I do not find it necessary either to repeat or paraphrase it here. What matters is his finding of fact which was: that the coupling was defective in design and dangerous in use on the public highway and that these defects were readily foreseeable by an appropriately skilled engineer considering the problem. He accordingly found the manufacturers liable to the plaintiff for negligence in having supplied and put into circulation for use without intermediate examination a coupling that was "defective in design and dangerous in use".


The coupling was designed for use interchangeably with trailers fitted with either cup-shaped or ring-type means of attaching them to the towing vehicle. The trailer with which the farmer always used it had a cup-shaped means of attachment. The defect in design was: that all that prevented the coupling coming apart when a trailer with a cup-shaped means of attachment was being towed was a locking mechanism operated by a handle attached to a spindle, and the safety of this device depended on the integrity of the spindle which was hidden from view inside a metal casing. The handle protruded below the bottom of the coupling and was liable to be struck or jarred or even broken in the course of normal use, with the likelihood of causing the spindle to be distorted or sheared. This would have had the effect of causing the lock to fail and permitting the coupling to come apart. This was something that might happen without the driver of the vehicle being aware of it at the time that it occurred.


Upon the judge's findings, this was what had happened in the instant case. When the accident occurred, both the handle and the spindle were missing. The casing of the locking mechanism was full of dirt and it was this dirt alone that had prevented the lock itself from falling off entirely. The judge was satisfied by the expert evidence that the coupling must have been in this condition for between three and six months before the accident and that the farmer who knew that the handle operated the locking mechanism must have been aware that the handle at least which, unlike the spindle, was clearly visible, had been broken off throughout that period. He found the farmer negligent in that "he continued to use this coupling over a period of months in a state in which it was plainly damaged without taking steps to have it repaired or even to ascertain whether or not it was safe to continue to use it in such condition".


As between the manufacturer and the farmer, the judge apportioned the liability as to 75 per cent to the manufacturer and 25 per cent to the farmer. He acquitted the dealers of all negligence. They had purchased a coupling made by reputable manufacturers and the defect in design would not be apparent upon reasonable examination.


In the third party proceedings brought by the farmer against the dealers the farmer sought an indemnity for damages for which he was liable to the plaintiff. He relied upon the warranties implied under section 14( 1) and (2) of the Sale of Goods Act 1893, (which was in force in its unamended form at the relevant time) that the coupling should be reasonably fit for the purpose for which it was supplied, viz. towing trailers with a Land Rover, and that it should be of merchantable quality. The judge held that because of its defect in design which made it dangerous in use, there were breaches of both warranties for which the farmer would be entitled to nominal damages at least if he had claimed them; but the judge held that the damages for which he had found the farmer liable were caused by his own negligence in continuing to use a coupling which he knew was broken without taking steps to have it repaired or to ascertain whether it was safe. He held that the principle inMowbray v. Merryweather [1895] 2 Q.B. 640, on which the farmer had relied, was subject to the limitation stated by Winn L.J. in Hadley v. Droitwich Construction Co. Ltd. [1968] 1 W.L.R. 37.


This limitation, in the view of Stocker J., made it impossible for the farmer to rely upon either of the implied warranties of fitness or of merchantability as enabling him to recover from the dealers the damages he was liable to pay the plaintiff for his own negligence. The only negligence of which the farmer had been found guilty was: that when he knew that the coupling was damaged, because the handle had been broken off, he continued for months to use it in that damaged state without having it repaired or even ascertaining whether or not it was safe to continue to use it in that condition. The dealers had not impliedly warranted that if the coupling should be broken when in use, the farmer need take neither of these elementary and obvious precautions once he knew that it was in a damaged condition.


My Lords, I shall be reverting to these two authorities when I come to deal with the proceedings in the Court of Appeal. The judge's decision that the farmer had no claim against the dealers made moot the dealers' claim against the manufacturers in the fourth party proceedings. The judge accordingly dismissed them; but it is nevertheless convenient at this point to mention how that claim was framed. The dealers had not bought the coupling direct from the manufacturers but from one of several wholesalers with whom they dealt; owing to a defective system of store-keeping records they could not tell which. So they were unable to identify an immediate seller against whom they in their turn could rely upon the implied warranties of fitness or merchantability. They based their claim against the manufacturers in the alternative upon a collateral...

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