McGhee v National Coal Board – 1973

January 08, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to McGhee v National Coal Board – 1973

The legal case of McGhee v National Coal Board, originating in 1973, stands as a landmark in the domain of employer liability and causation within the realm of tort law. The case gained prominence due to its pivotal role in reshaping legal interpretations regarding the duty of care owed by employers to their employees. Robert McGhee, a worker in the coal mines, suffered from dermatitis caused by the nature of his work environment, which lacked proper washing facilities. This case becomes a crucial legal milestone as it addressed whether the absence of adequate amenities by an employer directly contributed to an employee’s ailment.

Parties Involved

Robert McGhee, the plaintiff in this case, represented the laborer’s perspective, alleging that the National Coal Board’s negligence led to his dermatitis. The National Coal Board, the defendant, was responsible for managing the coal mines where McGhee worked. The case centered on McGhee’s contention that the absence of adequate washing facilities following his shift exposed him to harmful conditions, resulting in dermatitis. This legal tussle between an employee and employer spotlighted the duty of care owed by employers to their workers regarding workplace conditions and potential health hazards.

Legal Issues

The crux of McGhee v National Coal Board revolved around the pivotal legal issue of causation and employer liability. McGhee’s argument rested on the assertion that the absence of proper washing facilities directly contributed to his dermatitis. The key inquiry lay in determining whether the National Coal Board’s failure to provide adequate amenities was the direct cause of McGhee’s ailment or if it significantly increased the risk, leading to the legal question of employer responsibility in creating or exacerbating health risks within the workplace.

Court Proceedings and Arguments

The court proceedings witnessed intense legal arguments. McGhee’s legal counsel posited that the lack of washing facilities substantially contributed to his dermatitis, contending that if proper amenities had been provided, the risk of contracting the ailment would have been reduced. The National Coal Board’s defense emphasized that McGhee’s condition was not solely attributable to the absence of washing facilities, arguing that other factors might have caused his dermatitis, thereby disputing their direct liability for his condition. The court’s focus during this phase centered on the examination of factual evidence and expert testimony to determine the nexus between the employer’s actions and the employee’s ailment.

Judgment and Ruling

The court, in its deliberation, acknowledged McGhee’s contentions and handed down a groundbreaking ruling. The judgment recognized that while the absence of washing facilities might not have been the sole cause of McGhee’s dermatitis, it significantly contributed to the risk of contracting the ailment. This landmark ruling introduced the “material increase of risk” doctrine, establishing employer liability if their negligence materially increased the risk of harm to employees. The judgment broadened the scope of employer responsibility by acknowledging that even if the employer’s negligence didn’t entirely cause the harm, their actions contributing to increased risk could hold them liable.

Impact and Significance

McGhee v National Coal Board left a profound impact on legal jurisprudence, especially concerning causation and employer liability in tort law. The case set a precedent by recognizing the “material increase of risk” doctrine, significantly impacting legal interpretations regarding employer responsibility for workplace conditions that heighten health risks for employees. This ruling revolutionized the approach to determining employer liability and ensuring a safe working environment, influencing subsequent legal cases and discussions in tort law.

Academic and Professional Discourse

The ruling in McGhee v National Coal Board stimulated extensive academic discourse and professional debates within legal circles. Scholars, jurists, and legal experts engaged in rigorous analysis, examining the case’s implications on causation and employer liability doctrines. This case served as a focal point for discussions on employer duty of care and the evolving contours of liability in tort law. Ongoing academic studies and debates continue to draw upon this case to elucidate the nuances of employer responsibility and causation.


In conclusion, McGhee v National Coal Board is a watershed moment in legal history, profoundly shaping the interpretation of causation and employer liability in tort law. The judgment’s recognition of the “material increase of risk” doctrine set a precedent, expanding the boundaries of employer responsibility for workplace conditions that heighten risks to employee health. This case stands as a testament to the courts’ commitment to ensuring a safe working environment and establishing pivotal legal precedents that resonate in discussions on employer liability and duty of care.

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