Chapman v Hearse (1961) Case: A Summary

Chapman v Hearse

Case name & citation: Chapman v Hearse [1961] HCA 46; (1961) 106 CLR 112

  • Decided on: 8 August 1961
  • Jurisdiction: High Court of Australia
  • The bench of judges: Dixon C.J., Kitto, Taylor, Menzies and Windeyer JJ.
  • Area of law: Negligence

What is the case about?

Chapman v Hearse (1961) is a famous Australian case law on negligence and duty of care in tort law. It holds that a person who is negligent may also owe a duty of care to anyone who comes to their rescue or assistance.

Facts of the case (Chapman v Hearse)

On a dark night, a road accident was caused by the negligent driving of Chapman. He was knocked out of the car and lay on the side of the road unconscious. While passing by the scene, Dr. Cherry stopped his car, came over and assisted Chapman. In the meanwhile, another automobile came along the road from the south a little while after Dr. Cherry arrived at Chapman, and Hearse, the driver of this vehicle, failed to notice either Dr. Cherry or the injured man until it was too late to avoid them. As a result, Dr. Cherry was hit by the vehicle and suffered injuries that led to his death.

The estate of Dr. Cherry sued Hearse for causing his death accidentally. Hearse denied being negligent in his statement of defense and blamed Dr. Cherry for being negligent as well (i.e., contributory negligence). Then, by way of a third-party notice and statement of claim, he asserted that, in the event that he was to be found liable, Chapman was obligated to make a contribution to him in an amount that the Court would deem just and equitable.

Issues raised

Could Dr. Cherry be held guilty of contributory negligence?

Was Chapman responsible for a duty of care towards Dr. Cherry so that he (as a rescuer) could be prevented from being placed in a position of danger?

Could Chapman’s negligence be attributed to causing the death of Dr. Cherry?

Note: What is contributory negligence?

Contributory negligence is when a person fails to take reasonable precautions for their own safety and as a result, it contributes to the injury they sustain.

Judgement of the Court in Chapman v Hearse

It was observed that Dr. Cherry was a rescuer and therefore not liable for contributory negligence. There was no proof in support that Dr. Cherry had been negligent while assisting Chapman.

Chapman had a responsibility to take care not to put himself in a dangerous condition where a rescuer would get hurt while trying to help him.

Dr. Cherry’s death was caused in part by Chapman’s negligence, as Dr. Cherry would not have been on the road if it had not been for treating Chapman’s injuries.

Therefore, the Court held that Hearse was negligent and so was Chapman. Chapman was liable to contribute one-quarter of the damages payable by Hearse to the estate of Dr. Cherry.

Quotes from the case

The judges said as under:

“This we may do by asking ourselves whether, in the unusual circumstances of the case, Dr. Cherry’s conduct involved any departure from the standard which reasonable care for his own safety demanded. To our minds, this question can be answered only in one way. He had, naturally enough, come to Chapman’s assistance; in the course of attending to Chapman his attention must inevitably have been diverted from the road, and if, by reason of this fact, he failed to see the oncoming car until it was too late to get out of its way it would be quite wrong to hold that he was guilty of contributory negligence.” (at p119)

“But says the appellant, this was quite fortuitous and not a situation reasonably foreseeable by Chapman at the time when, as the result of his negligence, his vehicle collided with that of Emery. Then to emphasize the contention that Chapman owed no duty of care to Dr. Cherry the appellant enlarged upon the sequence of events that led to the final result. None of these events, it was said, was reasonably foreseeable……What is important to consider is whether a reasonable man might foresee, as the consequence of such a collision, the attendance on the roadway, at some risk to themselves, of persons fulfilling a moral and social duty to render aid to those incapacitated or otherwise injured.

……..But one thing is certain and that is that in order to establish the prior existence of a duty of care with respect to a plaintiff subsequently injured as the result of a sequence of events following a defendant’s carelessness it is not necessary for the plaintiff to show that the precise manner in which his injuries were sustained was reasonably foreseeable; it is sufficient if it appears that injury to a class of persons of which he was one might reasonably have been foreseen as a consequence.” (at p121)

Refer full text of the case here: http://www8.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/cth/HCA/1961/46.html

List of references:


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