28 November, 2012
The Court of Appeal recently gave judgment in a case involving a 15 year old girl who was injured in February 2007 when she was struck on the back of the heel by one of a pair of swing doors which had a self-closing mechanism. The Claimant was passing through the doors and was stepping down the step at the exit when the doors closed catching the back of her ankle causing a nasty laceration. The Claimant brought a claim against the local authority responsible for the school which was dismissed at the first instance, and she therefore brought this appeal.
The doors in question had been in place for 30 years with no previously recorded accidents and the Claimant herself "had safely negotiated the doors and the step many, many times before".
Whilst there had been no previously recorded accidents there had been a previous incident with the doors late in 2006 when one pupil had opened the door into collision with the rear of another pupil's foot causing a very minor injury. Whilst this accident had not been reported it had somehow been brought to the knowledge of the school caretaker who had investigated and risk assessed the doors and found that the location of the step so close to the doors did represent a hazard and categorised the risk as "low". Remedial work was ordered but due to the location of the doors and the amount of traffic that passed through them it was not practical or safe to carry out the works in term time. The works were therefore to be carried out in the Easter holidays in 2007 - only weeks after the Claimant's accident.
The Claimant alleged that had the first accident been reported the school would have more fully investigated with the exact cause in mind and therefore appropriate steps could have been taken to prevent her accident ever occurring. The Judge at first instance found that the school would have done exactly the same even if the first accident had been formally reported, he described the Claimant's accident as a "freak accident", which, due to the exact timings needed for it to occur, was "impossible to predict".
On appeal the Judge agreed with the trial judge and dismissed the appeal. He found that the first accident had involved an injury so minor that it simply did not make this current more serious injury reasonably foreseeable. The risk which the first accident brought to light when viewed in the context of 30 years of safe use of the doors by thousands of pupils and staff meant that the remedial action and timescales that the school had put in place were reasonable.
Whilst the Judge expressed his sympathy in dismissing the appeal he added that "it needs to be understood that not every misfortune occurring on school premises attracts compensation."
This case highlights the fact that not all accidents on premises are the fault of the occupier, sometimes these things are simply "freak accidents". The test is one of reasonableness and that should be judged on the facts as a whole. Here the fact that immediate remedial action hadn't been taken following the first accident was not unreasonable in the circumstances given the minor injury and the lack of any other accidents at the location.