No one is under a positive legal duty to protect others from harm, and that includes the emergency services. That general rule, which is a frequent source of surprise amongst non-lawyers, came under analysis in a High Court case arising from the unusual circumstances of a fatal road accident.
The events were alleged to have begun when a motorist skidded on black ice, which was caused by a water leak and flooding, and came off a country road. He had, by chance, worked as a road gritter and he took steps to warn other drivers, signalling them to slow down. When police arrived, he warned them of the danger. Officers erected a warning sign and swept the road of debris.
After the motorist was taken to hospital, officers were alleged to have removed the sign and left the scene effectively as it was prior to the accident, that is covered in black ice and dangerous. The ice was said to have caused a subsequent head-on collision in which two drivers died.
The widow of one of the deceased drivers launched a claim against the relevant police force on the basis that its officers had failed in the duty of care that they owed him. The force denied that they were under any such duty and applied to have the claim struck out.
Ruling on the matter, the Court noted the orthodox legal position that, absent any specific statutory provision to the contrary, the emergency services and other public authorities are in the same position as anyone else when it comes to civil liability. They generally owe no positive duty to protect individuals from harm.
However, it was the widow's case that, far from removing the source of danger, the interventions of officers who attended the scene of the initial accident had positively made matters worse. It was also submitted that the officers had assumed a duty of care to road users by taking control of the accident scene.
In refusing the force's application, and opening the way for the case to proceed to a full trial, the Court found that those arguments were not bound to fail and stood a more than fanciful chance of succeeding.