Liability of an individual for injuries to a friend voluntarily assisting with gardening considered Ford v Silverstone [2015] EWHC 531

The facts

The Claimant, a friend of the Defendant, had been helping him renovate his recently purchased house.

The Claimant cleared branches from the grounds and the Defendant worked the wood chipper. On one occasion the Claimant was alone and attempted to unblock the chipper by putting his left hand inside it while the engine was running, which resulted in three of his fingers being severed.

The Claimant’s case was that he had seen the Defendant do the same thing when the machine was blocked. He claimed that the Defendant had told him that the keyto the wood chipper was lost, but that the key to the lawnmower could be used instead. He said that because the lawnmower key took five minutes to start the chipper that the Defendant did not switch the chipper off when removing blockages.

The Defendant’s case was that he had never lost the key to the chipper, which was kept in a safe, and that he had never used the lawnmower key to start it, or even knew that it worked. The Defendant also claimed that he would never have placed his hand in the machine with the engine running. The Claimant submitted that the Defendant owed him a duty of care.

Held

The Claimant’s claim failed. It was held that the basis of the claim, namely that he had been shown how to unblock the chipper with the engine running, was not borne out on the evidence.

The Court was also not persuaded by the Claimant’s assertions regarding the key to the chipper. The key had not been lost and was either in use or in the safe.

The evidence was also that they were friends and that they enjoyed working on the property together. In no sense could it be said that the Claimant was an employee. If the Claimant had chosen not to work on that day, that was a choice he was free to make. His decision to resume branch clearance had been made without discussion with the Defendant. When the chipper had become blocked, he decided to do something highly dangerous which he had not seen the Defendant doing. The machine carried warnings about inserting hands without switching the power off.

The Defendant did not owe the Claimant a duty of care. Such a duty might have arisen if the court had accepted the Claimant’s version of events, but even then the court would have found a significant degree of contributory negligence; on the day of the accident the Claimant had been extremely reckless.

What can we learn?

  • A duty of care is much harder to establish between friends voluntarily assisting one another without obligation
  • Undertaking work of one’s own accord, without instruction or direction, reduces the likelihood of establishing that a duty of care was owed
  • Failing to heed warnings on tools, equipment or machinery is very likely to result in contributory negligence being found
  • Clearly acting stupidly and recklessly is highly likely to find disfavour with the court