A fresh coat of Morton v Paint?: Double actionability and Detinue in Guernsey

In an important recent judgment before the Guernsey Royal Court, Hindle v Kitching (unreported 3 April 2019), this case establishes that detinue still exists as a cause of action in Guernsey, and contains a substantial discussion of the governing law rules applicable to claims in tort – Walkers successfully secured protection for the Defendant in relation to substantial improvements that had been made to a classic Jaguar motor car in his possession.

The Plaintiff claimed for delivery up and damages in relation to the Jaguar, which he had left at a garage in 2008, after which it seems it was wrongfully transferred to a car dealer in Essex. It had subsequently undergone substantial improvements in the hands of multiple successive 'owners', including the Defendant, an innocent purchaser, who resides in the UK.

The Court considered the 'double actionability' test concerning the governing law applicable to claims in tort, and found that whilst Guernsey law does recognise a flexible exception to that test, the circumstances of the case did not engage that exception, and that the applicable law was therefore Guernsey law. The Court then found – for the first time – that detinue exists as a cause of action in Guernsey law, and that it had not been abolished as it has been in England in line with section 2 of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, under the principles established in Morton v Paint (1996) 21 GLJ 61.

The Defendant had personally spent £3,660.82 on the Jaguar, but he had bought it from a previous 'owner', Mr Goldie, who had in turn spent a further £43,325.58 improving the car. Both the Defendant and Mr Goldie had made these improvements in the honest belief that they owned the Jaguar. Whilst the Plaintiff argued that only the lower figure should be granted as an allowance to the Defendant to secure the return of the Jaguar, the Court held that the Plaintiff instead must pay the full amount of the improvements to adequately compensate the Defendant, as he had effectively purchased Mr Goldie's improvements. To find otherwise, reasoned the Court, would unjustly enrich the Plaintiff. The Court also gave the Defendant the option to retain the Jaguar and instead pay the Plaintiff £20,000, being fair compensation for what the Plaintiff had lost. The Court also awarded the Plaintiff a further £100 as nominal damages for the Defendant's wrongful detention of the Jaguar.

In adopting this approach, the Court demonstrated the various remedies that may be awarded following a claim in detinue, maintaining the well-established principle that the remedy must achieve "a just outcome with the aim of putting the Plaintiff into the position as if the wrong had not been committed against him."