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Home > What We Do > 90 years of Law > 1950s Highlights

1950s Higlights

In this period there were many cases heard which tested the interpretation of the Factories Act and the many Regulations passed under the Act. Many of the most important were pursued by WH Thompsons and a considerable number were heard by the House of Lords.

Paris v Stepney Borough Council (1951):

Fought by Thompsons on behalf of a worker who's only good eye was injured at work, rendering him completely blind.

Mr Paris worked as a fitter in the council's garage. His employers knew that he only had one eye.

He was using a hammer to remove a bolt when a chip of metal flew off into his good eye as a result of which he became totally blind.

It was not normal practice at the time to provide goggles or other protective eyewear for such work.

The House of Lords, overturning the decision of the Court of Appeal, found that in the circumstances the employers owed a special duty of care to Mr Paris and should have provided goggles. An employer had to take into account all factors including the condition of Mr Paris' eyes, the knowledge of the employer, the likelihood of an accident happening, and the gravity of the consequences should an accident occur.

The key principle established was that the employer should have taken his personal circumstances into consideration and protected him accordingly. The Law Lords decision that responsibility for safety at the employers was not just a general duty but also a personal duty owed to each individual in the light of their own circumstances was a crucial development in the law of negligence and remains one of the leading cases in the field to this day.

John Summers & Sons Ltd v Frost (1955):

Mr Frost was injured when using a grinding machine at work that had no guards.

His successful accident claim against his employers was a landmark case and helped to bring about changes in health and safety regulations.

This decision stood as the benchmark of interpretation of Section 14 of the Factories Act 1937 and its replacement in 1961 until the relevant legislation was changed with the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. It brought accident compensation to many thousands of workers who were injured by machinery, and perhaps of more long term value, helped to bring about a change in the culture of machinery safety with safety features being incorporated to avoid any possibility of injury.

Bonnington Castings v Wardlaw (1956):

By the 1950's, Thompsons were litigating significant numbers of disease cases, many of which were on behalf of Scottish workmen. One of them was Bonnington Castings v Wardlaw. This landmark disease case still forms an essential part of the law 50 years after the House of Lords gave its judgment.

Mr Wardlaw worked in a foundry for eight years and was exposed to silica dust and contracted pneumoconiosis. The main source of dust was from pneumatic hammers and at the time there was no known way of protecting against this. Another source was from swing grinders, and the company was in breach of statutory duty in respect of the dust extraction for these.

The situation therefore was that one source of the dust which caused the damage (from the hammers) was innocent in law but the other (from the grinders) was negligent. The company said that as there was no evidence to show the proportions of dust from each of the relevant sources they could not be held liable.

The House of Lords decided that the negligent source (the swing grinders) had made a "material contribution" to the contraction of pneumoconiosis. They found that the defendants were liable to pay compensation.

The principle of material contribution is still highly relevant today. For example it applies in mesothelioma cases where a victim is exposed to asbestos from more than one source but cannot (perhaps because one of the past employers no longer exists) pursue all those which exposed him. Because of the case of Bonnington Castings, provided the worker can establish exposure sufficient to make a material contribution to the risk by the company he sues, he will recover compensation in full against that company.

This issue of material contribution was tested by the insurers again only last year in the asbestos test case of Fairchild, a case in which over 40 years later Thompsons was once again a key player.

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