Vacwell Engineering Co v BDH Chemicals Ltd. [1971] 1 QB 88

Law of Tort – Remoteness of Damage – Foreseeability – Property Damage – Duty of Care

Facts

The defendant, BDH Chemicals Ltd, supplied the complainant with chemicals contained in glass ampoules. This had a label stating ‘harmful vapour’ on it. When the scientists were washing off the labels, one of the containers shattered and this caused a violent explosion to occur. It was the chemical coming into contact with water that caused severe damage, including killing one of the scientists, blowing the roof off the laboratory and shattering surrounding walls.

Issues

The issues in this case concerned whether the defendant was liable for unforeseeable damage that was caused by the explosion of the chemicals they had supplied to the complainant.

Held

It was held that the defendant was negligent and failed in their duty of reasonable care, as they did not give sufficient warnings about the chemicals they were marketing to their customers, including the complainant. A label that only said ‘harmful vapour’ was not enough to properly warn of its explosive reaction with water. A manufacturer should maintain a proper system that investigates and researches potential hazards associated with their products before they are sold, in order to inform customers of these hazards. In this case, it does not matter that the damage was more extensive that could be foreseen; only the kind of damage has to be foreseeable. Thus, it was irrelevant to claim that the property damage was unforeseeable and the defendant must be held liable for all damage.