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In re Polemis & Furness, Withy & Co.

Citation. [1921] 3 K.B. 560

Brief Fact Summary.

The defendants leased a ship from the plaintiff to carry cargo, including a flammable liquid called benzine. While in transit, a plank fell onto the cases of benzine, igniting them and causing an explosion that destroyed the whole ship.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The unforeseeability of the consequences of a negligent act do not absolve the negligent actor of liability.

Facts.

The plaintiff leased the boat Furness to the defendant to carry cargo to Casablanca. The cargo included benzine (a flammable liquid used as fuel), and while unloading at Casablanca, a heavy plank fell into the hold where the benzine was being stored. This caused an explosion that set fire to and completely destroyed the whole ship.

Issue.

Is the defendant liable for the destruction of the ship?

Held.

Yes. The defendant is liable despite the falling plank being unforeseeable. The decision rendered at arbitration is upheld.

Discussion.

The court indicates two possible approaches to a case of this nature. The first involves a case where there is no direct evidence of negligence. The second involves a case where negligence has already been proven. The court chooses to use the second approach, indicating an agreement with the finding in arbitration that the defendant was negligent. The court determines that the fire was clearly caused by the falling plank—which was in turn caused by the defendant’s negligence—and so the defendant is liable for the damage regardless of the foreseeability that a plank would fall and ignite the benzine.


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