The Federal Court of Australia has handed down its decision in Tregidga v Pasma Holdings Pty Limited [2021] FCA 721. This decision only reaffirms the difficulties that can be faced in proving a breach in an individual’s or corporation’s duty of care where causation cannot be established.

This case sets down the proper procedures in relation to the required standard that ought to be followed if a duty of care is owed by a particular person or organisation. In order for the Court to make a finding that a duty of care has been breached, the Court must consider whether that particular individual or organisation had done, or omitted to do, anything in performing work which constituted a breach of what is referred to as the standard duty of care.

Background

In around June 2016, a yacht otherwise known as the MV Miss Angel, owned by the Plaintiff, sustained extensive damage from a fire which ignited in the engine room of the yacht. During the day of the fire, an employee of the Defendant, Pasma Holdings Pty Ltd, Mr Benjamin Tilton, was undertaking work on the yacht’s electrical system.

In these proceedings, the Plaintiff claimed damages against the Defendant alleging that a fire was caused by the Defendant’s breach under a contract or, alternatively, negligence for which the Defendant is vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Tilton.

There was a lack of evidence on the Plaintiff’s part to the work that was performed by the Defendant and as it follows, there was no evidence to substantiate whether the work performed by the Defendant was indeed what had caused the fire. The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant was liable for the damage occasioned to the Yacht due to an omission on part of the Defendant, an omission that the Defendant did not de-energise the Vessel and turn off the shore power prior to leaving the yacht.

As the Plaintiff was unable to determine that the work completed by the Defendant caused the fire on the yacht, the issue before the Court, inter alia, was whether the duty owed by the Defendant extends to a duty to prevent injury or harm in circumstances where the alleged wrongdoer is not responsible.

Judgment

In considering this principle and what the extent of the Defendant’s duty of care really is, the Court provided that the duty of care on part of the Defendant is to exercise reasonable care and skill in carrying out works so as to ensure that the works carried out do not cause injury or harm to the vessel. However, the Court noted that this duty does not extend the scope to require the Defendant to take action to prevent injury or harm to the vessel.

The Court considered the facts before it and expert evidence which formed part of the Defendant’s evidence, and it was determined that the fire would not have started if Mr Tilton had disconnected the volt shore power, isolated the electrical system and switchboard, closed and sealed the switchboard, and isolated and disconnected the battery power.  In these circumstances, the Court considered that the scope of the Defendant’s duty of care did not extend to placing a requirement on the Defendant to take action of the aforementioned tasks to prevent the yacht from sustaining injury or harm.

The Court simply said that the duty of the Defendant did not extend so far to prevent the yacht from sustaining injury or harm.

Implications of this decision

In this regard, the Court made a finding that the Defendant was not liable and simply because an electrician was on the yacht at the time of the fire does not mean that he had a more extensive duty to prevent harm or injury to the yacht.

This case shows the difficulties that can be faced by individuals or organisations in claiming that a duty of care was breached by an omission, and accord must be had to whether there is a causative link between the omission itself and the duty to act.