Lords negligence case tests the water over duty of care claims

Sutradhar v National Environmental Research Council (House of Lords - 5 July 2006)

Mr Sutradhar, a Bangladeshi villager, suffered from arsenic poisoning as a result of drinking contaminated water. He made a claim in negligence against the Natural Environment Research Council, a UK statutory body.

In 1992, the British Geographical Society - a department of NERC - took part in a project in Bangladesh to sample groundwater. Testing for arsenic and other toxic substances was not within the remit of the project.

Mr Sutradhar, on behalf of 460 others, claimed that the report on the quality of groundwater was relied on by the Bangladeshi government, which then failed to take steps to ensure that drinking water was safe.

He claimed that the NERC owed him a duty of care to have tested the water for arsenic or at least not to have submitted a report giving an impression that the water was safe to drink.

The House of Lords held that BGS was not under any duty to the Bangladeshi government or the population of Bangladesh to test the water for additional substances such as arsenic, nor was its negligent in publishing the report that may have implied - by not referring to arsenic testing - that it was safe to drink.

The relationship between the NERC and Mr Sutradhar was not sufficiently proximate so as to establish a duty of care. The NERC had no control over the water in Bangladesh nor a contractual or statutory responsibility to ensure the water was safe to drink. The case was dismissed.

COMMENT

This House of Lords' decision offers reassurance to organisations involved in community research projects. A duty of care will not arise unless a close relationship of proximity can be demonstrated. Caroline Speight, BLM London.

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