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Cork v Kirby Maclean

April 03, 2024
Micheal James

Jurisdiction / Tag(s): UK Law

Facts of Cork v Kirby Maclean

A tragic workplace accident in 1952 sparked a legal battle that continues to resonate within negligence law. Mr. Cork, a factory worker employed by Kirby Maclean Ltd for a mere two days, fell from an unrailed platform situated over 20 feet above the ground. This fall ultimately led to his death. The case presented a complex legal scenario, as Mr. Cork suffered from epilepsy, a condition that caused seizures and carried a risk of falling. However, he had not disclosed this information to his new employer. The central questions revolved around the employer’s liability for the accident:

  • Did Kirby Maclean Ltd fail to provide a safe work environment by not installing railings?
  • Did Mr. Cork’s pre-existing medical condition play a role in his death, potentially severing the causal link between the lack of railings and the fatal outcome?


The legal battle in Cork v Kirby Maclean Ltd hinged on two fundamental principles of negligence law:

  1. Duty of Care: Did the employer owe a legal duty to Mr. Cork to take reasonable precautions to ensure his safety at work, specifically concerning the lack of railings on the elevated platform?
  2. Causation: Even if a breach of duty was established, was the absence of railings the direct cause of Mr. Cork’s death? Did his epilepsy potentially contribute to the fall, raising questions about the employer’s ultimate liability?


In a landmark decision, the Court of Appeal sided with Mr. Cork’s estate, holding Kirby Maclean Ltd liable for his death. This decision established a clear connection between the employer’s negligence and the tragic accident.

Ratio Decidendi (Reasoning of the Court)

The court’s reasoning focused on solidifying the employer’s responsibility to ensure workplace safety and establishing causation despite Mr. Cork’s pre-existing medical condition:

  • Duty of Care: The court reaffirmed the well-established principle that employers have a legal duty to provide a safe work environment for their employees. This duty includes taking reasonable precautions to minimize potential risks. The court viewed the lack of railings on a platform at such a significant height as a clear breach of this duty. This failure to provide a basic safety measure constituted negligence on the part of the employer.
  • Causation: The court acknowledged the presence of Mr. Cork’s epilepsy as a contributing factor. However, they ultimately employed the “but for” test to establish causation. In simpler terms, the court reasoned that if railings had been present, Mr. Cork might not have fallen, regardless of a potential seizure. This established a direct causal link between the employer’s negligence in failing to provide a safe platform and the fatal outcome.
  • Contributory Negligence: While Mr. Cork’s decision not to disclose his epilepsy could be considered contributory negligence, the court deemed it irrelevant in this specific case. The primary cause of the accident remained the employer’s failure to provide proper safety measures. Even if Mr. Cork’s medical condition had played a role, the lack of railings was deemed the primary reason for the fall.


Cork v Kirby Maclean Ltd holds immense significance in establishing legal principles for workplace safety and negligence claims. Here’s a breakdown of the case’s lasting impact:

  • Employer’s Duty of Care: This case reinforces the employer’s legal responsibility to prioritize workplace safety. It highlights the lack of railings on a high platform as a clear breach of this duty, setting a precedent for holding employers accountable for such safety lapses.
  • “But For” Test of Causation: The case exemplifies the application of the “but for” test, a crucial concept in determining causation in negligence claims. The court’s decision emphasizes that even if another factor contributes to the harm, the defendant’s breach of duty remains the primary cause as long as the harm wouldn’t have occurred “but for” the breach.
  • Contributory Negligence: The case sheds light on the concept of contributory negligence, demonstrating that it doesn’t always negate the defendant’s liability. In this instance, Mr. Cork’s failure to disclose his medical condition didn’t absolve the employer of their primary responsibility to ensure a safe work environment.


Cork v Kirby Maclean Ltd stands as a landmark case in negligence law, particularly concerning workplace safety and the concept of causation. It emphasizes the employer’s legal responsibility to provide a safe work environment and clarifies the “but for” test for establishing causation. While the case doesn’t address all aspects of workplace safety and pre-existing medical conditions, it serves as a crucial foundation for ongoing legal discussions and ensures that employers are held accountable for negligence that directly contributes to employee injuries or fatalities.

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