When you think of serious negligence cases, you might consider road traffic accidents, accidents at work or careless professional advice. What would not necessarily come to mind would be someone tripping on his or her shoelaces and causing a spectacular amount of damage.
Nick Flynn, who admitted to having a “Norman Wisdom moment”, managed to bump into three 17th century vases, reducing them to a jumble of broken porcelain. The accident occurred at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The antique vases were from the Qing dynasty, and the largest of the three was 32 inches tall and weighed nearly 100 pounds. With an estimated value of between £200,000 and £300,000, this was a serious incident by anyone’s standards.
Mr Flynn was first banned from the museum and then arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damages. He was later released without charge, having convinced the police that the incident was a genuine accident. Mr Flynn was said to appear unrepentant and perhaps he felt he had gotten off “scot-free”. Although he escaped criminal prosecution, he could still be pursued by the museum in the civil courts for damages.
If the museum does decide to pursue Mr Flynn, it will have to prove that he acted negligently. This would require museum representatives to consider the following principles of the law of negligence:
1. The duty of care – There is little doubt that, on the face of it, a potential negligence claim could be made against Mr Flynn. There would have been a duty of care for Mr Flynn to take care when looking around the museum.
2. A breach of his duty – Mr Flynn’s failure to tie his shoelaces and look where he was going could be judged unreasonable. If this was the case, then he would have breached his duty.
3. The breach of duty caused the damage – Finally, there is little doubt that his breach of duty by not looking where he was going and tripping into the vases caused them to break.
It would be a fair question to ask why, to date, a claim has not been made against Mr Flynn. The writer’s suspicion is that it is not because a case for negligence could not be proven; rather, it is the result of a more practical consideration. Mr Flynn was a student, and it is entirely possible that he would not have had sufficient funds to pay any damages had the case been won.
Luckily for Mr Flynn, a painstaking restoration project was carried out successfully and the vases are now back on display. It is not a case of all’s well that ends well so much as an admission of the unlikelihood that the amount of the damages could be recovered during legal proceedings. Mr Flynn should be very grateful that he escaped not only criminal proceedings but also a £10,000 bill for the restoration of the vases he broke. It can only be assumed that in future he will tie up his laces and watch where he is going!