National Coal Board v JE Evans & Co (Cardiff) Ltd [1951] 2 KB 861

Tort - Trespass - Whether lack of knowledge can amount to negligence

Facts:

An electrical cable was placed under the land of the county council by the National Coal Board (NCB) or its predecessors, without the council’s knowledge, as far as could be established. The council contracted JE Evans & Co (Evans) to excavate a trench on the land. Evans had no knowledge or indication there was a cable. When excavating the land, the cable was struck and damaged. NCB brought a cause of action for trespass.

Issues:

Whether Evans could be found to have acted negligently when excavating, even without knowledge of the cable. In the alternative, whether Evans’ failure to give immediate notice to NCB that the cable had been struck, amounted to negligence.

Held:

No liability in trespass could be found since the act was involuntary and accidental. The act of Evans was neither negligent nor wilful and was “utterly without fault”. The liability for negligence and injury lay with the NCB or their predecessors for failing to notify the council when they placed the cable under their land without knowledge or consent from the council. The case of Weaver v Ward (1616) Hob. 134 was applied in that, where a defendant is entirely with fault, it is a good defence to trespass. Where the cable was hidden and put there without permission or knowledge, no blame could possibly be attached. The damage was therefore caused indirectly by the predecessors.