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24 March 2024

The difficulties facing plaintiffs in slip and fall claims: A case summary of Macari v Snack Brands Foods Pty Ltd (NSWSC)

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Case summary – highlights responsibility of plaintiffs to prove the factual basis in slip and fall claims.
Australia Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
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The Difficulties Facing Plaintiffs in Slip and Fall Claims: A Case Summary of Macari v Snack Brands Foods Pty Ltd (NSWSC)

Macari v Snack Brands Foods Pty Ltd [2024] NSWSC 139

The NSW Supreme Court's recent decision in Macari v Snack Brands Foods Pty Ltd [2024] NSWSC 139 highlights the responsibility of plaintiffs to prove the factual basis in slip and fall claims. In Macari, the plaintiff had failed to establish what had caused his fall and consequently could not establish what reasonable precautions the defendant, as the premises occupier, should have taken to prevent the plaintiff from slipping. This article is a case summary of the Macari v Snack Brands Foods Pty Ltd [2024] NSWSC 139 matter.

An overview of the plaintiff's claim:

The plaintiff commenced proceedings in the Supreme Court of NSW against the defendant (Snack Brands Foods Pty Ltd) in relation to a slip and fall incident.

On 25 June 2018, the plaintiff was working onsite at the defendant's potato chip factory. Although the plaintiff was employed by a labour hire company, he was placed at the defendant's premises and worked under the defendant's control. The plaintiff claimed that he sustained injuries after he slipped down some stairs in the potato preparation area of the factory.

The plaintiff sued Snack Brands in negligence, claiming that it breached its duty of care to the plaintiff due to their failure to take certain actions to ensure that the stairs were safe which he said had ultimately contributed to him falling.

The plaintiff alleged that Snack Foods was negligent for failing to:

  • Clean or remove contaminates from the staircase;
  • Prevent boiling starchy water from splashing onto the staircase; and
  • Install handrails which extended down the entire length of the stairs instead of half-way.

The factual matters in dispute:

Justice Cavanagh noted that this was a case which turned on the facts, whereby the main issues that were to be determined was how the incident had occurred.

It was accepted that the plaintiff had slipped at the defendant's premises, however there had been no witnesses to the incident and the plaintiff had given conflicting accounts of what happened. In the plaintiff's contemporaneous report, the plaintiff had stated his fall was due to a slippery substance on the steps, and that he was holding onto the handrails at the time of his fall. He also stated that he slipped because the surface on the steps was wet and contaminated by boiling starchy water. However, in his oral evidence the plaintiff could not confirm if the water was in fact boiling or whether there was potato debris in the area.

The defendant provided evidence that the steps were made of non-slip material which were designed for wet and dry conditions and there had been no prior complaints or incidents involving the stairs. The defendant's evidence also indicated that the water that splashed onto the steps was neither hot nor starchy.

Court's decision:

Justice Cavanagh accepted that Snack Brands owed a duty of care to the plaintiff to take reasonable precautions to prevent the accident, however noted that the defendant is not the guarantor of the plaintiff's safety.

His Honour also noted the reasoning in Wilkinson v Law Courts Ltd [2001] NSWCA 196, that stairs are inherently but obviously dangerous.

In this case, the plaintiff couldn't prove the length of the handrail was causally significant to the accident and the court found no evidence that the steps were defective, inherently unsafe, or poorly maintained. There was also no evidence of boiling or starchy water on the stairs at the time of the accident.

Therefore, the plaintiff was faced with the following difficulties:

  1. He did not establish what caused him to fall; and
  2. He did not establish that there were any reasonable precautions which the defendant should have taken to prevent him from slipping.

Ultimately, the court ruled in favour of the defendant and the plaintiff was ordered to pay the defendant's costs.

What does this mean for plaintiffs?

This decision highlights the onus the plaintiff bears in establishing a breach of duty of care and causation. In this case it meant that the plaintiff had the responsibility to establish what caused him to slip down the stairs.

If a plaintiff cannot establish the precise circumstances of what caused their fall, it is extremely difficult to then establish what reasonable precautions a defendant should have taken to prevent the slip and fall accident. The fact that an accident or incident occurred in the defendant's premises is not generally a sufficient basis to attribute responsibility to the defendant and hold them liable.

This case confirms that whilst occupiers must take reasonable precautions to prevent accidents from happening, this does not mean that there is a strict requirement to guarantee safety in all situations.

Accordingly, if you have been involved in a slip and fall incident in a public place and suffered injuries, it is recommended to seek legal advice as soon as possible to determine the basis of your claim.

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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