The 2001 case of A v National Blood Authority is a pivotal legal decision in UK consumer law, particularly concerning product liability under the Consumer Protection Act 1987. In this case summary you will learn all about the facts of the case, legal principles involved, and the ruling. 

  • In the case of A v National Blood Authority [2001] 3 All E.R. 289, it was held that, where there is a known risk that blood samples may result in a defect occurring after a transfusion, a producer cannot evade responsibility by arguing that they had been unable to identify the products in which the defect would occur. Fault-related factors such as the ability to avoid the risk and cost of precautions are not circumstances that affect the safety levels the public is entitled to expect.

Facts of the Case A v National Blood Authority 

  • C (consisting of 114 people) were infected with Hepatitis C virus from blood transfusions organised by D since 1988.
  • It was known that there was a risk that the samples involved carried the virus, but it was impossible to avoid the risk.
  • In the earliest transfusions from this date, it was unknown that the donor’s blood contained the virus.
  • In all cases of transfusion, there were no tests available that could detect the presence of the virus.
  • C sued D under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, arguing that since D had organised the transfusions, D was strictly liable despite the absence of fault.
  • D argued that the inevitability of risk should be considered in determining the level of safety the public can expect under the 1987 Act.

Issues in A v National Blood Authority 

  • Were the inevitability of risk and the cost of precautions circumstances that should affect the level of safety the public is entitled to expect?

Held by the Queen’s Bench Division

  • Finding for C, that the question of avoidability, the impracticability of taking precautions and the benefit of the blood samples to society, were not factors which the court had to consider when determining liability.
  • Public knowledge of the risks could be considered, but the risk in this case had not been made known to the wider public. The 1987 Act did not afford a defence where it was known that the product could have harmful consequences.
  • The public was entitled to expect that blood transfused to them would be free from infection. As such, D was liable.

Mr Justice Burton

  • D are required to produce the blood, and, they argue, had no alternative but to supply it as a service to society. D submits this as a factor when considering liability, because they have no option to withdraw from the market or incur liability.
  • C argues that there is no automatic reason why the public’s expectation of safety should be lowered unless the blood is known to be defective or at risk of being defective. C also argues that there is no necessary reason why a public authority or non-profit organisation should be in any different position if the product is unsafe.
  • The public does not actually expect that the blood supplied was not 100% clean, nor were they aware of the risk of infection. D has not seriously argued that there was any public understanding or acceptance of the risk. Doctors were rarely asked by their patients about the risk.
  • “I do not consider that the legitimate expectation of the public at large is that legitimately expectable tests will have been carried out or precautions adopted. Their legitimate expectation is the safety of the product. The Court will act as what Dr Bartl called the appointed representative of the public at large, but in my judgment, it is impossible to inject into the consumer’s legitimate expectation matters which would not by any stretch of the imagination be in his actual expectation. He will assume perhaps that there are tests, but his expectations will be as to the safety of the blood. In my judgment, it is as inappropriate to propose that the public should not ‘expect the unattainable’-in the sense of tests or precautions which are impossible least unless it is informed as to what is unattainable or impossible, as it is to reformulate the expectation as one that the producer will not have been negligent or will have taken all reasonable steps” [56].

Significance of A v National Blood Authority

The A v National Blood Authority case significantly influenced product liability, setting precedents that were echoed in later cases. For instance, the case of Richardson v LRC Products similarly addressed the liability of manufacturers in cases where consumer safety expectations were not met, despite awareness of potential risks. Another example is Donoghue v Stevenson, which laid foundational principles about duty of care that were further reinforced by this case. These cases collectively emphasize the importance of meeting consumer safety expectations, regardless of the technological or practical challenges involved. This legal framework encourages manufacturers to prioritize safety enhancements and transparent communication about potential risks.

Exam Questions and Answers

How does this case influence liability considerations for other high-risk medical products?

The principles set in A v National Blood Authority suggest that manufacturers of high-risk products, such as pharmaceuticals or medical devices, are required to uphold high safety standards despite inherent risks. This may lead to stricter regulatory scrutiny and the necessity for comprehensive safety trials before market release, ensuring that all known risks are mitigated as much as possible. This could foster a proactive approach in risk management across the medical industry.

What are the implications for the standard of care required from blood service providers after this case?

The ruling in A v National Blood Authority emphasizes a higher standard of care in the safety measures blood service providers must adhere to. This could translate into more rigorous protocols for testing and screening blood donations, including advanced pathogen detection technologies and stricter donor screening processes. These enhancements aim to reduce the risk of transmitting infections and thereby fortify public trust in blood transfusion services.

How does this ruling affect the handling of known but unavoidable risks in other critical health services?

This case may prompt a broader application of rigorous risk management strategies across various health services that face similar known but unavoidable risks. Institutions might be compelled to implement enhanced preventive measures, invest in better technology for risk detection, and maintain transparent communication with patients about the inherent risks involved. This could lead to an overall improvement in patient safety standards and potentially reshape liability insurance policies for healthcare providers.

What impact does this case have on the compensation models for victims of similar incidents in the future?

The precedent set could lead to more substantial compensation awards for victims in similar situations, where harm could not be prevented despite known risks. This could involve not only direct compensation for physical harm but also for psychological impacts and quality of life reductions. Additionally, this case could encourage a more victim-centered approach in legal proceedings, focusing on comprehensive remediation for harm rather than merely punitive measures against providers.