In Deans v Maryborough Christian Education Foundation Ltd  QCA 73, the Court of Appeal has confirmed the trial judge's decision that a school was not liable for a teacher's slip on a grape.
This win for the employer demonstrates that not every slip and fall at work results in a positive liability case.
In 2015, Ms Deans was working as a school teacher at Riverside Christian College when she walked between classrooms and slipped on a grape. She sustained a fractured patella. It was assumed that the grape been dropped onto the foyer floor by a student collecting fruit from their bag during 'fruit break'.
Ms Deans argued (at trial and on appeal) that:
- The risk of injury from dropped fruit was a foreseeable and 'not insignificant' risk.
- The College had breached its duty of care by failing to, among other things, inspect and clean the area after fruit breaks, as it was a high-volume pedestrian thoroughfare.
At trial, the College led evidence to show there had been no prior incidents during the five years that 'fruit break' had been in place. The College submitted that its system to identify and dispose of rubbish was sufficient to safeguard against risks of injury.
Trial judge's decision
In July 2018, the trial judge dismissed Ms Deans' claim for $350,000, finding as follows:
The risk of injury was not foreseeable given the lack of evidence of prior incidents, inadequate supervision or other problems with 'fruit break' and, irrespective, it was an insignificant risk.
The College did not breach its duty of care to Ms Deans because:
- Its housekeeping system was reasonable
- There was no need to supervise Ms Deans or provide her specific warnings about the relevant risk
- Even if someone had been engaged to inspect the area immediately after the fruit break was concluded (which was not necessary), it was unlikely that a single grape would have been detected.
- It would have been unreasonable for the College to abolish 'fruit break', given its benefits to students.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal found that it was foreseeable that:
- a piece of fruit could be dropped during 'fruit break'
- a student or teacher might fail to notice or pick up the droppage and
- a person could slip on the dropped fruit and sustain injury.
However, the Court of Appeal confirmed the trial judge's decision. It found as follows:
- The risk of injury was insignificant as the probability of the relevant risk occurring was very low.
- The College had not breached its duty of care because:
- The College's system of instructing the teachers to keep the school grounds clean and tidy was reasonable in the circumstances.
- Ms Deans failed to provide evidence to establish that a system, including precautions that it was alleged the College might have adopted, would have avoided the risk of harm.
This case serves as a reminder that, where a risk is foreseeable but highly unlikely to occur, employers are only expected to take reasonable precautions – that is, employers are not required to take every conceivable measure to avoid such insignificant risks.
Cooper Grace Ward is a leading Australian law firm based in Brisbane.
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