• In the case of Barrett v Ministry of Defence [1995] 3 All ER 87, the Navy and other public authorities do not normally owe a duty of care to their employees to prevent self-harm, unless a special relationship of care has been created.

Facts of the Case

  • C was the widow of a navy officer who had died on a navy base.
  • The base had an established heavy drinking culture, and one night, C’s husband drank so much alcohol that he became unconscious.
  • A duty officer organised for C’s husband to be taken back to his room, where he was put in the recovery position and left unsupervised. A few hours later, C’s husband was found to be deceased, having asphyxiated on his own vomit.
  • C sought to hold D liable for negligence, alleging that D owed the deceased a duty of care as his employer. This duty of care included preventing the deceased from becoming so drunk that he caused himself injury or death, and that the circumstances around the death of the deceased were evidence of a breach of that duty by D.
  • The High Court judge ruled that given the laxity of attitudes towards drinking at the base, as well as the deceased’s own propensity to drink heavily, it was just and reasonable to impose a duty of care on D to protect its employees from self-harm by heavy intoxication.
  • The court held that D had breached this duty of care as it had failed to take disciplinary action to prevent such heavy intoxication from occurring and had also failed to take adequate measures to care for the deceased once he became unconscious, citing the Queen’s regulations and naval standing orders as D’s own disciplinary standards that it had failed to enforce.
  • The judge therefore awarded damages to C, but reduced these by 25%, upon finding that the deceased was guilty of contributory negligence.
  • D appealed this decision, contending that it did not have a duty of care in the circumstances of this case arising from its own Queen’s regulations and naval standing orders.

Issues in Barrett v Ministry of Defence [1995] 3 All ER 87

  • Did the existence of regulatory frameworks, namely the Queen’s regulations and naval standing orders, invoke a duty of care upon D to regulate the deceased’s own conduct and prevent self-harm?

Held by Court of Appeal

  • C’s claim held, but damages reduced to two-thirds of the original amount owing to contributory negligence by the deceased.

Beldam LJ

  • The main purpose of the Queen’s regulations and naval standing orders was to promote order, good discipline and behaviour that would uphold the reputation of the service.
  • These regulations did not in any way create a special relationship that would invoke a duty of care in law for the safety of others which would absolve the deceased of self-responsibility and make D liable for the deceased’s free actions.
  • It would not be just, fair or reasonable to expect one adult to assume the responsibility for another responsible adult’s behaviour; there was no reason why D should be held culpable for the lack of self-control exerted by the deceased when he freely chose to drink to excess.
  • D absolved of responsibility up until the point where the deceased collapsed – the was no duty of care to prevent self-harm by intoxication.

“[The deceased’s] fault was… a continuing and direct cause of his death. Moreover, his lack of self-control in his own interest caused the appellant to have to assume responsibility for him…I consider a greater share of blame should rest upon the deceased than on the appellant”

  • Once the deceased had collapsed and was no longer able to freely make decisions to help himself, the deceased became dependent on D and so a special relationship of care was created. D therefore did owe a duty of care to provide adequate supervision and medical care arising from this relationship, which was breached. D was therefore partially liable for negligence.
  • However, the circumstances through which this duty of care arose – the collapsing, the vomiting – were directly and freely created by the deceased when he chose to drink to excess.
  • Damaged recoverable by C reduced to two thirds of the original amount.