Barnett v Chelsea & Kensington HMC: What is “but for test”?

Areas of applicable law: Tort law – Breach of duty – Causation –  The “but for test”

The term “but for test” is commonly used in the context of causation in tort law, specifically in common law jurisdictions like the UK, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The “but for test” is a principle used to determine causation in negligence cases. It asks whether the harm suffered by the plaintiff would have occurred “but for” the defendant’s actions. In other words, would the harm have happened if the defendant had not been negligent?

Here’s a simple example to illustrate the concept:

Suppose a driver runs a red light and collides with another car in the intersection, causing injury to the occupants of the other car. In this case, the “but for test” would be applied by asking whether the injury to the occupants would have occurred “but for” the driver running the red light. If the answer is no, then the driver’s actions are considered a cause in fact of the harm.

If it can be established that the harm would not have occurred but for the defendant’s negligent actions, it helps establish causation in a negligence case. However, it’s important to note that the “but for test” is just one element in the analysis of causation, and legal systems may use additional tests or factors to assess causation more comprehensively.

The fact of the caseIn Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington Hospital Management Committee (1968) some night security guards drank tea on their site in cups that were collected from the site. The other guards were ok but one got quite sick and came to the hospital. The guard was suffering from arsenic poisoning which probably occurred due to using one of the cups from the site. He complained of stomach pain and nausea. The casualty doctor did not see him and the guard was told to go home and see his GP the following day if his condition continued. The guard died a few hours later.  

The hospital was sued for being in breach of duty to the deceased. The action failed as there was evidence that even if he had been treated by the doctor, he would have died nonetheless. Therefore the hospital was not liable.

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