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Doherty & Others v Rugby Joinery (UK) Ltd, Court of Appeal, 17 February 2004

24 February 2004
The issues

VWF – Vibration Induced White Finger – date of knowledge – duty to assess and monitor.

The facts

Eight Appellants appealed against the dismissal of their claims against the Respondent. All were women who had been employed for different periods between 1970 and 1999 in the Defendant’s two factories in Doncaster where doors and windows were manufactured. Each suffered from Vibration Induced White Finger and each claimed that their VWF was the result of the Defendant’s negligence. In the course of their work, they worked at different stages of the production process, using a variety of hand held vibratory tools such as nail guns, electric drills and screw drivers but usually only for a few seconds at a time. They also used an orbital sander for making wood smooth and which of all the tools used by the Appellants produced a surprisingly high level of vibration in the hand. The Judge found in general that the Claimants had exaggerated the amount of their use of the vibratory tools but that the Appellants had suffered VWF, which had been contracted in the course of their employment with the Respondent. It was agreed that at no time prior to the closure of the factories did the Defendants have actual knowledge that any of the tools used carried a risk of VWF. The issue was whether it had constructed knowledge. The Judge found that the duty to assess the vibratory tools used and monitor employees for symptoms of VWF arose only in 1991/1992.

The Claimant appealed.

The decision

1. The Judge was entitled to conclude on the basis of the expert evidence that neither the 1975 British Standards Institution Draft for Development nor the 1987 British Standards Guide was by itself and in the absence of complaint of symptoms by its employees, a sufficient trigger for either duty for which the Claimant argued.

2. (Lady Justice Hale) This case did not decide that the date of knowledge of the risk of VWF from the woodworking industry was as late as 1991/1992. It merely holds that these particular employers were not in breach of their common law duty of care towards these particular employees failing to monitor them for symptoms of VWF until that date. Four Appeals dismissed, four remitted to the Judge for assessment of damages.

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