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Employers' liability: transient hazards on floors and reasonably practicable steps

Vickers v Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council
9.01.2014
Walsall County Court

Facts

The claimant was employed by the defendant as a cashier at Christ Church CE Primary School in Coseley. She operated the till in the dining hall of the school to process payment for the pupils' school meals. On 23 May 2011, whilst walking across the dining hall to return some change owed to a child, the claimant slipped on some peas on the floor, causing her to fall and break her left femur.

The claimant alleged breach of the duty owed under the Occupiers' Liability Act 1957, as well as negligence, although it was acknowledged that the highest point of her claim was her allegation of breach of regulation 12(3) of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. This regulation provides that every floor in a workplace must be kept free from obstructions or substances which may cause a person to slip, trip or fall, subject to a defence of reasonable practicability. This is quite an onerous test, requiring the defendant to prove that all steps that could be taken were taken to prevent the presence of the substance on the floor.

The school had a very orderly routine for lunchtimes. The children were split into phases in which to enter the hall to collect and eat their lunch, so as to avoid a crowd of children in the dining hall. Phase 1 children were released from class at 11.50am and would then make their way to the toilets to wash their hands before queuing up outside the dining hall. They would then be let into the dining hall a few at a time to be processed by the claimant and then served their food by kitchen staff, before carrying their plate of food to the designated tables. The Phase 2 children would then be released from class at 12.00pm and would get to the dining hall a couple of minutes later. The claimant's accident occurred at approximately 12.10pm and, given the proximity of the peas to the tables occupied by the Phase 2 children, the judge was satisfied that the peas had fallen from the plate of a Phase 2 pupil. They had therefore only been present on the floor for a period of a few minutes at the most.

Evidence was heard from the head teacher and deputy head teacher of the school as to the strict system in place for lunchtimes and the strong health and safety ethos across the school. Both staff and pupils are trained to keep a look out for spillages and other hazards and to deal with these immediately. It was common practice for teaching staff to ask a child to pick up something that they had dropped, or for the member of staff to pick it up themselves. There was also evidence heard from the two Learning Advisors who were present in the hall at the time of the claimant's accident, one supervising Phase 1 and one supervising Phase 2, neither of whom had witnessed the claimant's fall. They both confirmed that whilst supervising the children, they were also under a duty to keep an eye out for any spillages, and that they would have dealt with the spilt peas if they had been seen before the claimant's accident.

Findings

The judge was satisfied that this was an "extremely well run school" and commented that he would "defy anyone to devise a better system" for running the school lunchtime. He found all of the defendant's witnesses to be honest and reliable, and was satisfied that the school's health and safety policy was being properly implemented by the staff working in the dining hall at the time of the claimant's accident.

In coming to his conclusion, the judge noted that the claimant was the only adult to have looked in the direction of the peas prior to her accident and she had failed to see them herself. The peas had been present on the floor for a matter of minutes, notwithstanding the proper implementation of the defendant's policies and therefore did not amount to breach of regulation 12(3). The claimant's claim must therefore also fail on a common law basis and her claim was dismissed.

Comment

  • This was a sensible decision on the facts of this case, where the school had a robust system in place and good witnesses to confirm that this system was being implemented properly at the time of the claimant's accident.

  • Whilst the judge was very complimentary of the system which had been devised by the senior staff at the school, he did make it clear that the issue in this case was the implementation of that policy by the Learning Advisors working in the dining hall at the time of the accident. This therefore highlights the importance of ensuring that risk assessments and health and safety policies are enforced, and not just documents prepared and then stored away. The policy itself means very little without the action of the defendant's staff to implement it.

Contact

For further information please contact Denise Brosnan or Samantha Chambers, Paralegal on 0121 200 0450.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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