No indemnity for E.Coli farm owner

Posted: 28th February 2013

SheepThe owner of an animal petting farm where a number of young visitors were infected with a potentially fatal strain of E. Coli bacteria must face up alone to a substantial damages claim by twin brothers who ended up in hospital. The High Court dismissed her plea that she should be indemnified against any potential liability by two public authorities which she claimed knew about the outbreak before she did.

The twins were aged two when they visited Godstone Farm, in Surrey, with their mother during the August bank holiday in 2009. They were struck down by the E. Coli O157 bacteria and had to be admitted to hospital for dialysis under general anaesthetic. The twins, whose older sister was also seriously ill, were amongst a number of children infected by the bug some of whom are still suffering long-term health problems.

Through their mother, the twins sued the owner of the farm who, in turn, issued indemnity proceedings against Tandridge District Council and the Health Protection Agency (HPA). Her lawyers argued that the council and the HPA had a general responsibility to ensure public safety at the farm and that ‘it should have been apparent’ to them that there was a potentially dangerous E. Coli outbreak developing in the days before the twins’ visit. It was submitted that the twins’ injuries would have been avoided had the situation been ‘proactively managed’ by the public authorities.

Striking out the owner’s case against the council and the HPA, the court concluded that they owed no ‘blanket duty of care’ to visitors to the farm even if it could be established that their alleged omissions had resulted in members of the public being exposed to a foreseeable risk of injury.

Noting that the council and the HPA were bound to act ‘primarily for the public good and not in the private interests of visitors to the farm’, the court ruled that neither had assumed a private law duty of care towards visitors to the farm. "Mere knowledge on their part of an outbreak or potential outbreak from the farm falls far short of giving rise to an assumption of responsibility”, the court concluded.