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Criminal | Offences Against The Person

Involuntary Manslaughter: Gross Negligence

Study Note | A Level

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Involuntary manslaughter is an unlawful killing where a defendant does not have the intention to kill or cause serious bodily harm. The maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter is life but the judge has discretion in sentencing.

Gross negligence manslaughter is when a person dies as a result of the negligence of another. The degree of negligence must be sufficiently serious as to make him criminally liable for the death.

Actus reus

Adomako (1994)

Defendant, an anaesthetist, was in charge of a patient during an eye operation. During the procedure an oxygen pipe became disconnected and caused the patient to suffer a heart attack and die. Experts testified that the defendant’s failure to notice the disconnection was abysmal . He was convicted by the jury of gross negligence manslaughter.

House of Lords upheld his conviction and clarified the elements required for gross negligence manslaughter:

(1) existence of a duty of care
(2) breach of that duty of care which causes death
(3) gross negligence which jury considers justifies criminal liability
(4) the gross negligence was a substantial cause of the death of the victim

  • Duty of care

    The defendant’s duty of care to the victim must be established.

    In Adomako (1994), Lord Mackay said the ordinary principles of negligence in civil law should apply when determining if a duty of care existed and whether it was breached.

    Donoghue v Stevenson (1932)

    Claimant went to a cafe with a friend who bought her a ginger beer. The bottle was opaque so the contents were obscured. After drinking some claimant found a decomposed snail in the bottle. She became ill and wanted to sue the manufacturers. As she had not bought the drink she was unable to use the law of contract so argued the manufacturers owed her a duty of care.

    House of Lords set out a test for when a duty of care was owed. Lord Atkin: .. You must take care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour... Who then, in law, is my neighbour? Persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in my contemplation as being affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions in question....

    Civil test is much wider than the duty situations which the criminal law recognises can lead to liability for an omission. However, a range of areas where liability can be imposed have developed through case law.

    Voluntarily taken on

    Stone and Dobinson (1977)

    Defendants allowed a relative to live with them. She became ill and unable to care for herself and died. Defendants had assumed some responsibility and so had a duty of care towards the victim. Defendants were convicted of manslaughter through failing to care for her or summon help when she became helpless.


    Litchfield (1998)

    Defendant was owner and master of a ship which crashed in Cornwall and three crew members died. Defendant owed the crew a duty of care, through contract. Defendant had breached this duty as he had steered an unsafe course and relied on the engines when he knew that they might fail. Defendant was found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter.

    Singh (1999)

    Defendant, a landlord was found to owe a duty of care to a tenant. Tenant died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a gas boiler. Defendant was found to have had sufficient information about the dangers of defective gas fires to have taken action. Defendant was found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter.

    Complicity in a crime

    Wacker (2002)

    Defendant was a lorry driver was involved in a criminal conspiracy to bring illegal immigrants into the UK. The lorry was airtight, with a vent that could be opened to allow air to enter. Defendant closed the vent for hours in an attempt to avoid detection. 58 people were found dead due to suffocation. Defendant was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter.

    Defendant argued, in line with civil rules, he did not owe a duty of care to the victims as they were carrying out a joint unlawful activity. Court of Appeal rejected his argument and instead excluded this specific aspect of the civil rules as being inappropriate in the criminal law context.

    Willoughby (2005)

    Defendant owned an old disused pub, he was in debt and was unable to sell the pub. Defendant arranged for the victim to help him set fire to the pub in order to claim on the insurance. During setting fire to the pub, part collapsed on the victim and he died. Defendant was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter.

    Court of Appeal upheld his conviction, confirming Wacker (2002). The court also commented that whether a duty arises may be partly determined by public policy and that the role of the judge is to decide if there is evidence capable of establishing a duty of care and a jury must then decide if this duty of care exists.

    Life threatening state of affairs

    Evans (2009)

    Defendant failed to summon help for the victim, who had overdosed on heroin and subsequently died. Defendant was victim’s half-sister and had supplied the heroin which victim had injected, both were addicts. Defendant put the victim to bed, hoping that she would recover.

    Conviction for manslaughter was upheld. It was found a duty arose when a person had created or contributed to the creation of a state of affairs that he knew, or ought reasonably to have known, had become life threatening. There becomes a duty to take reasonable steps to save the life.

  • Gross negligence

    The fact a defendant is negligent is not sufficient to convict, the negligence must be gross.

    Bateman (1925)

    Defendant was a doctor in a case where a woman died giving birth. Established negligence required as the basis for criminal liability.

    Lord Hewart: .. in order to establish criminal liability the facts must be such that, in the opinion of the jury, the negligence of the accused went beyond a mere matter of compensation between subjects and showed such disregard for the life and safety of others as to amount to a crime against the State and conduct deserving punishment....

    Andrews (1937)

    Defendant attempted to pass another car by driving on the offside of the road and killed the victim, a pedestrian.

    Lord Atkin: ..There is an obvious difference in the law of manslaughter between doing an unlawful act and doing a lawful act with a degree of carelessness which the legislature makes criminal. If it were otherwise a man who killed another while driving without due care and attention would ex necessitate commit manslaughter... [and] a very high degree of negligence is required to be proved before the felony is established....

    Adomako (1994)

    Lord Mackay: .. The jury will have to consider whether the extent to which the defendant's conduct departed from the proper standard of care incumbent upon him, involving as it must have done a risk of death to the patient, was such that it should be judged criminal....

    Essentially, it is for individual juries to decide, taking into to account the evidence, whether the breach of duty was serious enough to amount to gross negligence. This has lead to some inconsistent decisions.

    Finlay (2001)

    Defendant, a scout leader, took a group to Snowdon and the victim, a 10 year old, fell and died. Evidence showed some safety procedures had not been fully adhered to. However, the jury found there was not sufficient disregard for life to amount to gross negligence. Defendant acquitted.

    Edwards (2001)

    Defendant’s allowed the victims, their 7 year old daughter and a friend, to play near a railway line. Defendant’s had promised to warn the victim’s of any approaching trains. Victims were killed by a train the defendant’s had not seen. Defendants were found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter.

  • Risk of death

    In Adomako (1994), a risk of death caused by the defendant’s conduct was referred to in the judgement by Lord Mackay. There is a lack of clarity on this point, although it seems logical such a test is applied.

    In Stone and Dobinson (1977) it was sufficient for there to simply be a risk to the health and welfare of the victim. Previously it was suggested the test was disregard for the life and safety of others (Bateman (1925)).

    Misra and Srivastava (2004)

    Defendants were doctors who had been convicted of gross negligence manslaughter in relation to the death of patients.

    On appeal, they argued that the test, whether it was a risk of death or risk to the health and welfare, was too unclear. Defendants put forward that the offence of gross negligence manslaughter breached Article 7 of the European Convention Human Rights as it was too uncertain.

    Court of Appeal held the elements of gross negligence manslaughter had been made clear in Adomako (1994) and therefore, there was no breach of Article 7.

Mens rea

Involuntary manslaughter is an offence based on the fact the defendant does not have the intention to kill or cause serious harm.

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