The Wagon Mound Case(No.1) 1961

The Wagon Mound Case,1961

Overseas Tankship Co(U.K.)  v. Morts Dock and engineering. co

Facts of the case

Overseas Tankship had a ship, the Wagon Mound, docked in Sydney Harbour in October 1951. The crew had carelessly allowed furnace oil (also referred to as Bunker oil) to leak from their ship. The oil drifted under a wharf thickly coating the water and the shore where other ships were being repaired. Hot metal produced by welders using oxyacetylene torches on the respondent’s timber wharf (Mort’s Dock) at Sheerlegs Wharf fell on floating cotton waste which ignited the oil on the water. The wharf and ships moored there sustained substantial fire damage. In an action by Mort’s Dock for damages for negligence it was found as a fact that the defendants did not know and could not reasonably have been expected to know that the oil was capable of being set alight when spread on water. The dock owners knew the oil was there, and continued to use welders.

The leading case on proximate cause was Re Polemis, which held that a defendant can be deemed liable for all consequences flowing from his negligent conduct regardless of how unforeseeable such consequences are. As this case was binding in Australia, its rule was followed by the New South Wales Court of Appeal.[5] The defendant appealed to the Privy Council.


Up until this time the main case had been Re Polemis, where the focal inquiry was that of the directness of the chain of events between the activating act being inspected for negligence and the outcome. The Council concluded that as opposed to go with point of reference (authority) they would decide a rule from a scope of cases, likewise as Lord Atkin did in Donoghue v Stevenson, and their guideline was essentially a solitary test for predictability which they contended was a legitimate connection between the harm and the risk (culpability). Expressed in an unexpected way, predictability was the consistent connection between, and the test for, penetrate of the obligation of care and the harms. This is the preeminent test and might be reworded as “the obligation of an outcome … was regular or vital or plausible.” The Lords made reference to knowing the past, showing it is not at all like foreknowledge and should assume no job in evaluating carelessness.


Now,  As this case was binding in Australia, its rule was followed by the New South Wales Court of Appeal.[5] The defendant appealed to the Privy Council.

The judges presiding over the case were Viscount Simmonds and Lord Reid.

The court after going through the case and arguments, decided to favor the defendants. The main aspect being that of a witness stating that in no way the defendants, in spite of the furnace oil being innately flammable, could not reasonably expect it to burn on water. They highly disapproved the rule established in Re Polemis, as being “out of the current of contemporary thought” and held that to find a party liable for negligence the damage must be reasonably foreseeable.

The judgement can be seen as a fairly natural decision by the court. What is to be focused at here, is the fact that the argument does not fall in the lines of fault or mismanagement but on the lines of foreseeability and the consequences thereof.

It is clear through the aforementioned statement of the witness, that a common human being cannot, foresee the fact that the oil spillage on the water is flammable to the extent which it can cause the resultant damages.

It is also known that the plaintiff did make sure that welding will resume on the dock only when the oil is submerged but it is completely unfortunate and unpredictable about the piece of cotton that floated on the water.

But, it is very necessary to also bring up the aspect of re polimis as it can also be regarded a part of similar cases.

The case of Re Polemis & Furness, Withy & Co Ltd (1921) or popularly known as re polemis is a very significant case that had set the tone with regards to dealing with negligence of personnel and the action for damages resulting thereof.

In a nutshell, one of the employees while loading cargo in a ship, negligently drops a plank which somehow trigerred a spark which came in contact with the petrol vapor and burned the ship down.

In the court of appeal it was held that the defendant was liable on the grounds that although it the results of the plank being dropped could not have possibly been foreseen,  it was held that the defendant would nevertheless be liable for all direct consequences of his actions. The court reasoned that if the act would or might probably cause damage, the fact that the damage it in fact causes is not the exact kind of damage one would expect is immaterial, so long as the damage is in fact directly traceable to the negligent act and not due to the operation of independent causes.


Clearly it can be inferred that the current case does not construe itself on the factors set in by Re polemis as here it is out of sheer bad luck that the steel cotton lay afloat on the water when the welding was ordered to resume.

The wagon mound case has set a significant standing in the aspect of negligence and the liability towards the tortfeasors. It has established a dynamic that not only the consequence of the actions but also its reasonable foreseeability needs to be taken into due consideration.


The main issue that can be contended from the case is basically that Is a tortfeasor liable for all damage, even that which is unforeseeable, directly resulting from a negligent act?

The issue can be broken down and summarized basically with the answer that A tortfeasor is responsible for the reasonably foreseeable or probable consequences of his negligent acts. In this case, the test for liability for fire is foreseeability of injury from fire. But, here the defendants clearly mentioned about the point that they had been testified about the oil being inflammable and a reasonable person would believe the words of an expert and he would diminish any thought regarding the fact that it could ignite. The degree of forseeability is completely reduced. This is the most plausible answer to the issue raised as it all boils down to the fact that even when told that the oil is inflammable the defendants were just caught in the circumstance and to their bad luck, the oil did catch fire.

Court’s reasoning

The decision given by the trial court judge seemed out of date and inadequate when closely looking at the rather small but very significant difference between the underlying faults of both the present case and that of precedent i.e. re polemis that was brought up in the judgement.

But, it was clarified by the judges of the privy council. The main aspect that had signalled the change in thought was the aspect of the judges unanimously agreeing about the disapproval of the direct consequence theory. They reasoned that in a way the theory seemed rather one dimensional and the other factors were silenced. It is clearly seen in the judgement given by the trial court judge who followed this theory and went on to deliver a decision based on the directness of the parties involved in the actions of the case.

Therefore, the court’s reasoning is adequate and takes into consideration more than just two factors.


The Wagon Mound case, brings with it a new and revolutionary passage as to tackle a case under negligence. This case has also brought about a rather modern way of understanding the negligent acts of the defendant. If closely noticed nowhere in the case are the workers whi had spilled the oil nor their employers been deeply dragged into the arguments or even the case. The defendants can be deemed that they were involved in the case due to the flow of circumstance. The defendants had done all they could in ensuring that in no way a fire WOULD Erupt. But, it was as we have mentioned countless times before, unforseeable and unlucky.

To understand the stance taken by the trial court judge, it is absolutely logical to have brought up the precedence of re Polemis. But, bringing it up closes the passage of thought with regard to seeing the inconspicuous aspects of the facts.

The wagon mound therefore, did not only bring about a new way of analysing and judges cases of negligence but also gave a new threshold or criteria that the judges must see before, providing a decision in such cases.

Author: Tarun S,
IFIM law school, 1st year

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