The recent widespread public unrest, destruction of property and looting caused massive loss and damage in two provinces, and our television sets and other news media carried images of rampaging crowds looting and burning – with, for the first few days at least, very little evidence of effective police reaction.
Many of those who suffered losses (or their insurers) will no doubt be wondering if they might have a claim for damages from the police and other agencies tasked with protecting us from crime. We address the issue with reference to the case of a farm vandalised during a worker’s strike marked by stonings, petrol-bombings, arson, assaults, intimidation, looting, and destruction of property. The police were held by the High Court to be liable for damages after failing in their duty to assist the farm and non-striking workers.
Can you sue the police if they fail to protect you during unrest and violence? It’s an important question not just for employers dealing with strike violence. In the aftermath of the massive damage caused by the recent public unrest and looting, the case we now discuss will no doubt find application far beyond the labour relations field.
Strike violence – damages for a vandalised farm and an assaulted employee
A large fruit farm was subjected to a month-long strike “characterised by violence through various acts of intimidation, assaults, malicious damage to property, vandalism, theft, road blockades and various acts of looting.”
Ahead of the strike, the South African Police Services (SAPS) had been informed of the looming strike and of suspicions that “there is a great likelihood that the strike is likely to be violent.”
What followed was a litany of violent action by a large crowd of strikers – stonings, petrol-bombings, arson, assaults, intimidation, brandishing of knobkerries, threats of murder, looting, and destruction of property. 251 strikers were dismissed after disciplinary hearings, an event which itself led to more violence.
The farm and a non-striking worker stabbed by strikers sued SAPS in the High Court for damages. Although many of the facts were disputed in evidence, the Court found that the employer had made numerous pleas to SAPS, based some 15 km away, for assistance. During one police response, said the employer, it was informed that the police had no capacity to assist, whilst on many other occasions the police failed to respond at all.
A Labour Court interdict and contempt of court order were allegedly not enforced, and whilst various criminal charges were laid during the course of the strike, few arrests took place (four of them only when police themselves were stoned).
On the basis of the evidence before it and its analysis of the duty of the police to provide assistance when a crime is imminent, the Court ordered the Minister of Police and the National and Provincial Commissioners of Police to pay “proven or agreed damages” arising from the strike “as a result of their wrongful and negligent conduct.”
Critical to the outcome was the Court’s findings that “the police had a legal duty to act positively to prevent harm to the Plaintiffs. The legal convictions of the community required of the police to act more swiftly to prevent harm to the Plaintiffs. The legal convictions of the community incorporate constitutional values and norms and in our constitutional democracy it cannot be acceptable of the police to sit idle when they should have reasonably foreseen that the strike will turn violent. When a crime is imminent and foreseen it is expected of the law enforcement agency to take appropriate action. The duty of the police to provide assistance arises from their mandate to carry out law and order.”
Factually, the Court found that “The police had the capacity to patrol the area and conduct continuous monitoring which they failed to do. Their failure to respond to various pleas for assistance was not only negligent but wrongful” and “the conduct of the police viewed against the legal and public policy considerations, constitutional norms and values was unacceptable and accordingly unlawful.”
Will these principles apply to unrest and looting claims generally?
Of course the recent public unrest, destruction of property, and looting were on a totally different scale and took place in a very different context to the facts before the Court in the case above.
At time of writing, media reports suggest that a general failure by security services to foresee and forestall the violence may have rendered them largely incapable of reacting effectively to whatever pleas for help they may have received. In contrast, in the case above the Court seems to have accepted that the police had the resources to react effectively but failed to do so. So although the general principles laid out above will no doubt assist in any attempt to hold the police liable for looting and other losses, time alone will tell whether victims will actually be able to prove any degree of police liability, either generally or in specific instances.