28 July, 2021
Forbes recently successfully defended a claim brought by a claimant under the Occupiers' Liability Act 1957. She said that she had slipped on the steps of a Council building that was hired out for a wedding and that the defendant council had not discharged its duty to her as a visitor to see that she was safe in using the premises. Her evidence in court was that it had been snowing on and off all day in the vicinity and that when she came to leave the venue with her son at about 10.15 pm, the steps were covered by a thick layer of snow and were slippery and wet as a result. Her son supported her on that point at trial. Neither of them had included this evidence in their witness statements and on cross-examination they could not explain why that was the case. All they had said in their statements was that the steps were "wet and slippery". The judge specifically noted in his judgment that she had been asked in the cross-examination if she was "exaggerating today to improve her case".
The defendant's witnesses denied that it had been snowing such that the steps were covered at that point. One witness, we obtained a statement from said it had not been snowing when she left work at around 7pm, and had it been she would have gone back into the venue to speak to the management team and engage the gritting procedure. The claimant sought to rely on a weather report that suggested it had been snowing at the time, but as the report related to Manchester Airport which was some 10 to 12 miles away from the accident location, the judge gave it no credence. Indeed, in cross-examination by our Counsel, the claimant conceded that just because it was snowing at Manchester Airport it did not mean that it was necessarily snowing at the accident location.
Whilst not being found to be fundamentally dishonest the claimant also had some difficulties in relation to the circumstances around the accident itself. When she instigated her claim in the portal she had said that the security guard who witnessed her accident came to her assistance. For some unknown reason, in her witness statement and at trial she claimed that he had not assisted her at all. We had obtained a statement from the security guard who was called to give evidence. He said that he did witness the incident and went to help her afterwards. He accepted that it had just started to snow, but was not covering the ground, and did not do so until later that evening, and that the steps were not slippery at the time of the accident. He suggested that she fell due to being intoxicated, although the judge made no finding on that point because he reached the conclusion that there were no adverse weather conditions such that there had been any breach of duty by the defendant.
An occupier of premises, such as our client here, owes a duty to visitors to their premises to ensure that they will be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purposes for which they are permitted to be there. As the judge stated at the beginning of his judgement, the burden of proving a claim is on the claimant. In this case, the claimant failed to prove that the state of the premises suggested that this duty had been breached and therefore the claim failed. It is important to put claimants to proof on the cause of their alleged accident in the right cases. Our witnesses were clear that the cause of the fall was nothing to do with adverse weather conditions and the judge accepted that view.