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Gary slapper. The cases that changed britain part IV: 1955-1971

1. Entores Ltd V Miles Far East Corporation May 18, 1955

Another key case in which the law adapted to a social change: this time the advent of the telex (electric typewriters connected via cable systems). The decision had a huge impact on business. Under general principles in the law of contract, if there is to be an enforceable agreement, acceptance of an offer must be communicated to the person who has made the offer. Here, the court was concerned with the technicality of precisely where a deal for 100 tons of Japanese cathodes had been completed. The court had to consider at what point an acceptance made by telex (a precursor of the fax machine) in Amsterdam was “communicated” to the person receiving the message in London. Was it communicated when it was typed by the sender or when it was printed at the other end? The Court of Appeal decided the deal was made in London when the telex message was printed in that office.

2. Bolam V Friern Hospital Management Committee February 27, 1957

In cases of alleged medical negligence there are commonly various schools of medical thought about how something should be done. This case gave guidance about how far a treatment must be accepted among doctors in order for it not to be seen as negligent if it goes wrong. An action for damages was brought by a psychiatric patient, John Bolam, for a fracture sustained during electro-convulsive therapy. Although he had signed a consent form, Bolam hadn’t been warned of the risk of fracture, which was one in 10,000. Nor had he been given relaxant drugs, which would have excluded the risk of fracture. However, the lawsuit failed. The court ruled that in order to prove negligence a doctor had to fall below a standard of practice recognised as proper by every responsible body of opinion. At the time it was not common practice to warn patients about the dangers of the treatment and many doctors were opposed to the use of relaxant drugs.

3. Sayers V Harlow Urban District Council May 08, 1958

An amusing drama, this case also carried an important point about the law relating to accidents. Something of the mood of the case is heralded by the fact that The Times law report was headed “Lady Locked in Lavatory”. Eileen Sayers and her husband were on a coach trip to London from Essex. At one point on the journey, Mrs Sayers went to the lavatory but became locked in the cubicle. She injured herself when she fell trying to climb out using the toilet roll holder as a foothold. Although Mrs Sayers was successful in her claim for damages, the court found that she was guilty of some contributory negligence in the way she endeavoured to escape. She bore 25 per cent of the blame, and so the damages were reduced by that amount.

4. R V Smith March 26, 1959

This gruesome case decided an essential principle of cause and effect in the law of murder. Is the chain of causation broken if a victim of violence is injured by someone else before he dies? Private Thomas Joseph Smith was convicted of murdering a fellow soldier whom he had stabbed with a bayonet during a barrack room fight. The victim received a pierced lung that caused a haemorrhage. He was taken to hospital. On the way, he was dropped twice. When he got to the hospital, the graveness of his condition was missed because the medical staff were so busy with other patients. Had the victim been given a blood transfusion his chances of recovery would have been as high as 75 per cent, but he received “thoroughly bad” treatment, including inappropriate artificial respiration, and died. Private Smith’s appeal concerned the “causation” of the death. He argued that while he had caused the victim’s wound he could not be held responsible for his death because the chain of unfortunate events after the injury had really killed him. But the court held that Private Smith had been rightly convicted. If at the time of the death, the original wound is still “an operating and substantial cause”, then the death can be said to be the result of the wound, even though some other cause of death is also operating. Only if the second cause is so overwhelming as to make the original wound merely part of the history can it be said that the death does not flow from the wound.

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