• In the case of Re Polemis [1921] 3 K.B. 560, it was held that a defendant can be deemed liable for all consequences resulting from their negligent conduct, regardless of how unforeseeable those consequences were.

Facts of the Case

  • From 21st February 1917, C chartered a ship to D for the duration of the war and, at D’s option, up to 6 months afterwards from the day she was placed at D’s disposal.
  • By clause 3, C provided and paid for all provisions and wages of the crew, the insurance of the vessel, war risks excepted, and maintained her in a ‘thoroughly efficient state’ for ordinary cargo service.
  • By clause 4, D provided and paid for all fuel, port charges, agencies, commissions, and all other charges whatsoever, except those before stated.
  • In about June and July 1917, D had the ship loaded at Nantes with cargo intended for Casablanca, Morocco. The ship was loaded with further cargo at Lisbon consisting of flammable material.
  • On 17th July, the ship arrived at Casablanca and discharged a portion of her cargo. Due to either rough handling or weather on the voyage, flammable material had leaked from tins into the hold.
  • On 21st July, while shifting part of the load, the breakage of cases led to petrol vapour gathering in the hold.
  • While D’s agents tried to move a sling of cases from the hold, the sling was caught and boards fell into the hold. This caused an instantaneous rush of flames from the hold that destroyed the entire ship.


  • Was the fire caused by negligence an expected peril?
  • If not, Was the falling of the board an act of negligence by D?
  • If so, was the fire resulting from the fall of board reasonably foreseeable?

Held by the Court of Appeal

  • Finding for C, that although the fire itself may not have been foreseeable, D would nevertheless be liable for all direct consequences of his actions. If an act would or might probably cause damage, that the damage that ultimately occurs is not the exact kind of damage one would expect is immaterial as long as the damage is directly traceable to the negligent act.

Warrington L.J.

  • Clause 21 contains no express exception of loss by fire caused by negligence. The present claim is based on negligence. It is well settled that in such a contract as the one discussed, the exceptions would not be construed so as to excuse the shipowner or occupier for loss of the nature described if caused by the negligence of himself or his servants, unless expressly so framed.

Scrutton L.J.

  • “To determine whether an act is negligent, it is relevant to determine whether any reasonable person would foresee that the act would cause damage; if he would not, the act is not negligent. But if the act would or might probably cause damage, the fact that the damage it in fact causes is not the exact kind of damage one would expect is immaterial, so long as the damage is in fact directly traceable to the negligent act, and not due to the operation of independent causes having no connection with the negligent act, except that they could not avoid its results. Once the act is negligent, the fact that its exact operation was not foreseen is immaterial” [577].

Editor’s Notes

  • While this case had not been directly overruled, the reasonably foreseeable test in Wagon Mound has replaced the strict liability rule in negligence. Strict liability still exists in the form of the ‘eggshell skull’ rule, but this only applies to personal injury cases such as Smith v Leech Brain.