Philips v Whiteley

Philips v Whiteley [1938]: A Quick Summary

Case name & citation: Philips v William Whiteley Ltd [1938] 1 All ER 566

  • Court and jurisdiction: High Court, England and Wales
  • Year of the case: 1938
  • The learned judge: Goddard J
  • Area of law: Negligence; standard of care

What is the case about?

Philips v William Whiteley Ltd is a UK tort law case on negligence. It concerns the issue that ordinary people are not expected to use the standards as that of skilled people.

Facts of the case (Philips v Whiteley)

The plaintiff went to the defendants to have her ears pierced by a jeweller. Before beginning the procedure, the jeweller sterilized both the piercing needle and his own fingers to prevent any infection. The plaintiff then went to a hospital for a major surgery. During this time, she developed an abscess on her neck, which she asserted was caused by the jeweller negligently using an infected needle while piercing her ears. She sued the defendant jeweller for negligence. 

Issue that arose

Was the jeweller in breach of the duty of care owed to the plaintiff?

Judgment of the Court in Philips v Whiteley

It was not expected of the jeweller who pierced the claimant’s ears to practice the same standard of hygiene as would be expected of a surgeon performing an operation.

Further, it had not been demonstrated that the infection entered the ear at the time when it was pierced.

Even if a causal link could have been established between the abscess and the ear piercing (which it could not), the jeweller was not negligent anyway. Even though his needle might not have been as sterile as a surgeon would have required, it was sterile enough for all practical purposes, and he did as much to clean it as one could reasonably expect from a jeweller.

Thus, the jeweller could not be held negligent as he had taken all the reasonable precautions to avoid infection. He had not breached his duty of care.

Quote from the case

“If a person wants to ensure that the operation of piercing her ears is going to be carried out with that proportion of skill and so forth that a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons would use, she must go to a surgeon. If she goes to a jeweller, she must expect that he will carry it out in the way that one would expect a jeweller to carry it out… I see no ground for holding that Mr. Couzens departed from the standard of care which you would expect that a man of his position and his training, being what he held himself out to be, was required to possess. Therefore, the charge of negligence fails.”

(Goddard J)

List of references:

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