Hughes v. Lord Advocate
A.C. 837 (H.L.) (1963)

  • Postal employees (who worked for the Lord Advocate) were working on an underground cable in Scotland when they decided to take a break.
    • They roped the area off and put up warning signs, but left the manhole open and left lit lanterns nearby.
  • Two boys snuck in, took the employees’ lanterns and were playing around. One of the boys dropped a lantern into the manhole, there was a fire and explosions, and 8-year-old Hughes was injured. The boys sued for negligence.
    • Like most sewers, there was a lot of flammable methane gas down there.
  • The Scottish Court ruled in favor of the Lord Advocate. The boys appealed.
    • The Scottish Court found that the postal employees were negligent in leaving the manhole open and leaving lit lanterns nearby.
    • However, the Court found that an explosion due to the dropping of a lantern in a sewer was not a foreseeable consequence of leaving a manhole open.
      • Basically, the Court said that it wasn’t foreseeable that some boys would enter the site and drop a flaming lantern into the manhole, so the postal employees couldn’t be found negligent for not doing more to prevent the accident.
      • Maybe if a boy had fallen into the open hole and been injured, that would be foreseeable, but no one would have guessed that leaving an open manhole could lead to a big explosion. The Court found that you could only be liable for things that you specifically could have expected to happen.
  • The Appellate Court reversed.
    • The Appellate Court found that a fire was certainly foreseeable, because it was well known that sewers have methane in them. It was also foreseeable that some little kids might be attracted to an open manhole and want to play there (aka an allurement). Therefore, the postal employees could still be negligent even thought the specific accident that occurred wasn’t foreseen.
  • Basically this case said that if you do something negligent that and it’s foreseeable that some kind of accident might happen and somebody could get injured, then you are liable, even if the specific way the accident happened was completely unexpected and unforeseeable.