Suppose you see a runaway truck, and seek to stop its progress before it does real damage – what legal claims arise? In an earlier post, I referred to two of the possible claims: first, if you stop it from injuring others, but are yourself injured in the process, you can sue the tortfeasor who released the truck in the first place. Second, if you are negligent in the process, you might yourself be liable in negligence to anyone you injure. But there is a third; if your rescue confers a benefit upon someone, such as the owner of the truck, then you might have an action in restitution for unjust enrichment against the owner of the truck.
This all sounds like a classic exam question, but it has recently happened. Yesterday’s Times has an interesting story raising all of these issues:
The Royal Mail is being accused of ingratitude after criticising a man who stopped a 2-tonne runaway post van from careering over a busy main road. Robert Moore, 63, an artist, cracked a rib and injured a knee as he tried to stop the Transit van rolling down a hill when the driver forgot to apply the handbrake. But, instead of thanking him for his quick thinking, Royal Mail’s lawyers accused him of recklessness and putting his life in danger. …
The incident occurred in September when Mr Moore saw the Royal Mail van rolling backwards towards a junction in Bristol. He ran alongside and opened the driver’s door but was unable to reach the handbrake. Despite injuries to his legs, which were scraped along the road, he helped to stop the van before it reached the main road. He suffered a cracked rib and injured knee and instructed his solicitor, Metcalfes, of Bristol, to inquire if he was entitled to compensation. …
It seems from this that Moore sought to take a negligence action against the Royal Mail. As the propositions above demonstrate, his negligence action is against the tortfeasor who allowed the runaway truck to escape and there is nothing in the article to suggest that the Royal Mail was negligent in that respect. On the other hand, he could very well have an action in restitution for unjust enrichment against the Royal Mail, since his actions conferred an obvious and incontrovertible benefit upon them. Indeed, they have changed their tune; the article concluded:
Royal Mail apologised yesterday for the letter and promised to investigate. A spokesman said: “We would like to apologise to Mr Moore for the handling of this case and we are discussing the matter with him and his legal representatives.”
More coverage: here (Bristol Evening Post), here (Bristol Evening Post again), here (Daily Telegraph), and here (The Register).