14 July, 2011
Lord Justice Jackson delivered the leading Judgment in the Court of Appeal in the case of Hufton v Somerset County Council on the 7th July 2011.
The case concerned a 15 year old pupil who during a school break had entered the school hall because it began to rain and slipped on a patch of wetness. The claim was brought under the Occupiers Liability Act and it was alleged that the school had not taken reasonable steps to ensure the safety of pupils.
There had been two entrances to the school hall, one via an entrance foyer and another by means of a pair of fire doors. The school contended that during inclement weather the fire doors would be closed with signage put in place to prevent access. There were rubber mats by the doors which did not absorb all the water brought in. It was alleged on appeal that there was no proper system in place to prevent the floor becoming wet and the clearing up of water if the floor did become wet.
The school had in place a reasonable risk assessment which had been undertaken in 2000, to restrict use of entry when raining and to provide for the placing of matting both externally and internally. The Claimant sought to allege that there was a gap in the system which enabled the floor to get wet when the wet weather sign was placed by the fire doors.
Since the system had been put in place there had been no similar accident.
LJ Jackson reiterated the duty under the Occupiers Liability Act by stating "It is not possible, and the law does not require, the occupier of premises to take measures which would absolutely prevent any accident from ever occurring…what is required is the exercise of reasonable care."
It was not realistic to say that the school should have had a system in place whereby a small area of water should have been spotted and mopped up during a brief period of time between the start of rain and the moment the Claimant slipped. It was held the school had put in place a proper system but unfortunately that system did not prove effective. Nevertheless, the school were not liable to the Claimant for either negligence or for breach of statutory duty.
The decision reinforces the test to be used in Occupier Liability claims. The fact an accident occurred does not impose strict liability on the defendant. As long as it can be shown that reasonable and proper systems had been in place, then it is arguable that the defendant have satisfied their duty under the Act. It is encouraging to see the Court adopting a common sense approach to the test of reasonableness.