Letang v Cooper – 1965

March 05, 2024
Micheal James

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The 1965 case of Letang v Cooper, decided by the English Court of Appeal, stands as a pivotal decision regarding the application of trespass to the person in negligent situations. The central question revolved around whether Mrs. Letang, accidentally run over by Mr. Cooper’s car while sunbathing, could claim “trespass to the person” despite the lack of intentional harm.

Facts of the Case

Mrs. Letang was sunbathing on a parking lot when Mr. Cooper, unaware of her presence, reversed his car over her legs. Although initially choosing not to sue, she filed a claim for trespass to the person three years later due to sustained injuries.

Legal Issue

The case hinged on the distinction between legal categories:

  • Did Mrs. Letang’s accidental injury fall under “trespass to the person,” traditionally requiring intentional interference with bodily integrity, or under “negligence,” dealing with unintentional harm caused by a breach of duty of care?

Trespass to the Person and Negligence

Historically, trespass and negligence existed as separate torts:

  • Trespass to the person: Protected against direct and intentional interferences with one’s body (e.g., assault, battery).
  • Negligence: Dealt with unintentional acts causing harm through breach of duty of care (e.g., failing to warn of danger).

Arguments of the Parties

  • Mrs. Letang:
    • Argued trespass to the person applied due to the direct interference with her physical integrity, regardless of Mr. Cooper’s intention.
    • Claimed the car’s use, even with negligence, constituted an actionable trespass.
  • Mr. Cooper:
    • Contended trespass to the person required intentionality, which was absent in his case.
    • Argued Mrs. Letang’s claim should fall under negligence, subject to its shorter three-year limitation period, which had expired.

Judgment and Rationale

The Court of Appeal sided with Mr. Cooper:

  • They emphasized the historical requirement of intentionality for trespass to the person.
  • While acknowledging the directness of the harm, the court distinguished its unintentional nature from intentional interferences protected by trespass.
  • They affirmed the separate nature of trespass and negligence, highlighting the importance of policy considerations in maintaining distinct categories.

Impact of the Case

Letang v Cooper had a significant impact:

  • Narrowed the scope of trespass to the person by reaffirming the requirement of intentionality.
  • Clarified the boundaries between the torts, ensuring unintentional harm, even with direct contact, falls under negligence.
  • Sparked debate about the potential harshness of the outcome for Mrs. Letang, raising questions about potential overlap and fairness in specific scenarios.


This case demonstrates the importance of distinguishing legal categories to ensure appropriate remedies and uphold established legal principles. While raising questions about potential hardship in borderline cases, Letang v Cooper remains a landmark decision influencing the application of trespass to the person and the development of tort law in negligence claims.

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