Welton v North Cornwall District Council [1997] 1 WLR 570.

DUTY OF CARE

Facts

The plaintiff was the owner of a guest house in North Cornwall. An environmental health officer employed by the defendant council to carry out statutory duties informed the plaintiff that unless extensive refurbishments were carried out, the guest house would be shut down. Then plaintiff duly carried out the work, at significant cost. It later transpired that the officer’s statements had been made negligently.

Issue

The issue was whether the defendant owed a duty of care not negligently misstate the plaintiff’s obligations. A second issue was whether the fact that the defendant acted in the exercise of a statutory power excluded the application of the principle in Hedley-Byrne & Co v Heller & Ord Ltd [1963] 1 All ER 575.

Held

The Court of Appeal held that a duty of care did exist in these circumstances, on the basis that the environmental health officer spoke from a position of authority and it was entirely reasonable for the plaintiff to have relied on his statements in incurring the expense of refurbishment. Even if he had not initially been under a duty to explain the plaintiff’s obligations to him, once he undertook to do this a duty arose to do so accurately. Moreover, the officer must have known that the plaintiff would act in reliance at the time he made the statements, particularly as the guidance had been given with the implied threat that sanctions would be imposed if it was not followed.

In this case, the Court of Appeal did not consider it relevant that the officer was acting in the performance of a statutory duty, or the ability of such officers to perform this duty might be undermined by the imposition of liability in negligence.