Barrett v Ministry of Defence [1995] 3 All ER 87

Key point

  • Public authorities do not normally owe a duty of care to prevent self-harm by employees, unless there is an assumption of responsibility through the provision of special care


  • In a Navy base where there was a culture of drinking, C’s husband, a soldier, collapsed while drunk
  • Duty officer arranged for him to be taken to his room where he was left unsupervised and later died choking on his own vomit
  • C sued for negligence against the MoD, his employer

Held (Court of Appeal)

  • C’s claim allowed; but damages reduced by two-thirds for contributory negligence by C’s husband

Bedlam LJ

  • The Navy is not under a general responsibility to prevent its employees from excessive drinking
  • A contrary rule would dilute self-responsibility and would blame one adult for another’s lack of self-control
  • The duty is also impractical if applied to the deceased’s fellow servicemen, who would have been drunk as well
  • However, the deceased had fallen ill, a relationship of care had been undertaken by the duty officer by arranging for the care of deceased, leading to a duty to the him
  • In the capacity as the deceased’s carer, the duty officer was negligent


  • A similar case is Jebson v Ministry of Defence [2000] EWCA Civ 198
    • A drunk soldier on a night out climbed onto the top of lorry transporting them back and got injured
    • Commander had assumed responsibility for safety and was liable for proper supervision
  • It seems to be contrary to good conscience that a public employer who provides care to its employees is thus under the threat of liability for negligence whereas a public employer who does not provide any care at all is not