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   Case summaries      Smith v Littlewoods

Smith v Littlewoods Organisation Ltd [1987] AC 241   House of Lords

The defendant owned a disused cinema which they purchased with the intention of demolishing it and replacing it with a supermarket. The cinema was last used on 29th May 1976. Littlewoods acquired the building on 31st May 1976. Contractors were present at the cinema until 21st June and thereafter the cinema was empty until the incident on 5th July 1976. The contractors had left the building secure, however, vandals had broke into the building. Littlewoods had not been informed of this and so the building remained unsecured. There was evidence to suggest that further entry by vandals had occurred over the couple of weeks. The fittings inside the building were damaged and debris was thrown. On one occasion a sink had been removed and thrown onto the roof of a billiard hall. There were also two small incidents involving fire. None of this was reported to the police or Littlewoods. On July 5th  the vandals broke into the cinema and set fire to it. The fire spread and caused damage to neighbouring properties. The owners of the properties brought an action in negligence claiming that Littlewoods owed them a duty of care to prevent the actions of the vandals.


Littlewoods were not liable. Whilst they did owe a duty of care they were not in breach of duty. They were not required to provide 24 hour surveillance and were unaware of the previous incidents. The law is unwilling to impose liability for the deliberate act of a third party see Lamb v Camden London Borough Council [1981] QB 625 but will do so in appropriate cases (Dorset Yacht v Home Office [1970] AC 1004). The general rule relating to omissions is that no liability arises for a pure omissions but there exist exceptions to this where there is a special relationship, an assumption of responsibility, where the defendant is in control of a 3rd party that causes the damage, where the defendant is in control of land or dangerous thing.
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