Snails, Ginger Beer and Factory Fires – the Principle of Causation

In today’s blog we have a look at the principle of causation in the law and when it is possible to have negligence but no claim.

The principle set out in Donoghue v Stevenson was that a manufacturer owes a duty to the end user to take reasonable care to ensure that the produce (in that case, ginger beer containing a rather dead snail) will not cause personal injury to the user. That principle was later extended to include damage to property. The key point to note here is the word “cause”, which we term causation.

An example of how there can be negligence, but no causation, involved a fire that destroyed a factory in the 2016 case of Howmet v Economy Devices. The factory which manufactured aerospace components, which involved dipping castings into hot vats of acid and water. There were sensors on the tanks which were designed to turn off the heaters if that became necessary. Those sensors, however, proved defective and the tanks caught fire on two occasions.  Those fires were soon extinguished and no damage was done. 

Realising that the sensors were defective, the factory staff introduced a system of regular manual checks to ensure there was no overheating. But, human failure intervened and on an occasion when no one was looking, a fire broke out destroying the factory. Unsurprisingly, a claim was made against the sensor manufacturers on the basis that their unit was defective. However, the claim failed. The factory staff knew the device was defective and they were therefore not relying on it but, instead, were relying on their own system of manual inspection and turning it off when necessary. 

Accordingly, the effective cause of the fire was not the failure of the sensor – but the failure of the newly introduced alternative system that the staff had put in place.

The key point in relation to causation was that there was a lack of actual reliance on the sensor; in legal terms this could be expressed in one of two ways either:

  • the sensor manufacturer was under no continuing duty to the factory owner; or 
  • any breach of duty by the sensor manufacturer did not cause the factory owner’s loss.

It is therefore a good illustration of how there can be negligence (in this case the  manufacturing a defective sensor) but no causation and therefore no claim, because there was no reliance.


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