Roles v Nathan is a case in English tort law concerning the Occupiers' Liability Act of 1957 (amended as of 2014).
Two chimney sweeps, Donald and Joseph Roles, died of carbon monoxide poisoning on their duty in the Manchester Assembly Rooms. This legal action was brought by their widows, based on their claim that Herbert A. Nathan, the occupier, was in breach of the duty of care under Occupiers' Liability Act of 1957.
There was a nearly thirty-year-old boiler fuelled by coke in the Manchester Assembly Rooms, with flues carrying away smoke. Heeding the advice of a boiler engineer, Mr Nathan summoned Roles brothers to sweep the flues. The sweeps were given an initial warning about the potential dangerous effects of carbon monoxide produced by the boiler, which they dismissed on the grounds that "they knew what they were doing as they were flue cleaners for many years". They cleaned the flues when the fire was put down, but new problems arose the next day. An expert was called to examine the situation; he ordered everybody out and repeatedly warned the sweeps, to no avail. He eventually forced the sweeps out and carried on his inspection. He told everyone including the sweeps that the inspection chamber and the sweep-hole needed to be sealed up before the boiler was lit up.
The fire was lit up by an unidentified person the next day. The sweeps came back to complete their cleaning work, without the sweep-hole sealed, because they did not have enough cement. They left saying they would come back the next morning with the necessary cement. However, they came back later that evening, seemingly having found cement earlier than expected, and began to seal up the sweep-hole. They were killed by the carbon monoxide in the fumes that night.
It was held that the occupier was not liable, because multiple clear warnings were issued and the sweeps put their safety at stake by ignoring those warnings. The defendant was found to be under no duty of care, as the dangers were ordinarily incident to the sweeps' calling, i.e. they would have been expected to take necessary precautions.
- Could an occupier be held liable if he had issued a warning beforehand?
Lord Denning MR, writing for the majority, held that the warnings which were given to the sweeps were enough to enable them to be reasonably safe. The sweeps would have been quite safe if they had heeded these warnings, and that under the Act the occupier has, by the warnings, discharged his duty.
Harman LJ also concurred with this judgement.
Dissenting from the majority, Pearson LJ wrote that the risk arose from the boiler being lit, and the fatal accident showed that carbon monoxide had been left behind in the alcove. The deceased could not adequately guard against that risk. Furthermore, the defendant's agents themselves, in disregard of the warning, did the dangerous act of lighting the fire before the access vents had been sealed.
With a majority of 2:1, this appeal was allowed in favour of the defendants.
- The warnings issued by the defendants' agents were enough to allow the visitors to be reasonably safe.