The recent case of Ruth Geary, who took the decision to slide
down a particularly impressive banister in a manner similar to that
of Mary Poppins, and the ensuing claim made by her against the
owner of the building for the substantial injuries she suffered
when she fell, acts as a useful reminder to all landowners to be
aware of their liability to visitors.
WHAT IS OCCUPIER'S LIABILITY?
Occupiers' liability in England and Wales finds its roots in
common law and is developed by statute; the Occupiers'
Liability Acts of 1957 and 1984. An "occupier" can be the
landowner, a tenant or even someone who organises an event on
someone else's land. Provided that the occupier is shown to
have a sufficient degree of control over the premises then a duty
of care to those who come on to the premises can be established.
The question is to what extent is that duty of care owed.
GEARY V JD WETHERSPOON PLC
In Ruth Geary's case the answer was, none. When Ms Geary
performed her tribute to Mary Poppins by attempting to slide down
the banister she fell some four metres on to the marble floor below
resulting in her tetraplegia. She claimed against the owner of the
building, JD Wetherspoon Ltd, on the basis that the company was
negligent for not demonstrating the appropriate duty of care to
her. The Court, ruling in favour of JD Wetherspoon Ltd, stated that
Ms Geary chose to do something that was inherently dangerous and
therefore accepted the risk of injury.
GRIMES V HAWKINS
The Geary case and the other recent case of Kylie Grimes, an 18
year old girl who dived into a pool, hitting her head on the floor,
support the trend being followed by the Courts that people should
take responsibility for their own actions. With Kelly Grimes, the
Court decided that she chose to dive into "an unremarkable
swimming pool on domestic premises", an act that carried an
obvious risk and that no amount of action reasonably taken by the
occupier would have prevented her from sustaining her injuries.
FURMEDGE V CHESTER-LE-STREET
A case providing more food for thought is that of Furmedge v.
Chester-Le-Street District Council. In this case the organisers of
an event on the Council's land were held liable as occupiers of
the Council's land and the owners of a large inflatable
sculpture. The sculpture comprised a number of eggshaped coloured
cells or units that were interconnected. When inflated, visitors
could walk through the tunnels and voids created between the units.
A gust of wind caused the sculpture to break free from its moorings
and blew it into the air. Two people inside died and a number of
others were injured. The Court held that both the Council and the
organisers of the event were liable for not taking appropriate
steps to reduce the level of risk to visitors.
FOWLES V BEDFORDSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL
The case of Fowles v. Bedfordshire County Council should also be
considered. In this case, Mr Fowles, a 21-year-old student,
attempted a forward somersault using gymnastics mats at a youth
centre operated by the Council. The failed attempt resulted in
permanent spinal injury. The Council were held liable for not
properly providing the facilities with the appropriate supervision
and instruction. The Council's decision to provide such
facilities imposed an obligation that such provision be appropriate
to cover the risks.
WHAT ABOUT CHILDREN?
Occupiers must have particular regard to children. Although it
can be reasonable for an occupier to expect a parent to control
their child, it is not always possible for children to be
supervised. Many premises, such as building sites, are subject to
the 'allurement principle'. Such premises can be very
alluring to children and therefore more care must be taken to deter
Owners of land should regularly review the state and condition
of their properties. It is vital that they have a real awareness of
actual and potential risks on their land and a strategy for dealing
with them. Although the claims in the Geary and Grimes cases above
were dismissed, the outcome may have been very different had there
been an unexpected or hidden hazard, with no warning. Common law
supports the view that, if occupiers demonstrate an appreciation of
risks on their land and take action, such as displaying warning
signs, then they will be best placed to discharge their duties to
the visiting public.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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