Parker’s case provides comfort to leisure venues - clubs, hotels and restaurants that good lighting on the stairs will help fulfil their duty of care to protect their guests from injury.
The case is Parker v City of Bankstown RSL Community Club Ltd  NSWCA 246, a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court of New South Wales (Macfarlan JA with whom Simpson JA and Sackville AJA agreed). The court upheld the decision of the trial judge - Adamson J  NSWSC 772 that the Club was not negligent when Parker fell down the stair, because the strip lighting on the stair provided adequate warning of the presence of the stair.
Parker’s case – the facts and the decision
Mrs Parker was attending the Christmas dance concert held by a dance school, to watch her young daughters perform. It was held in the auditorium of the Bankstown RSL Club on a Saturday afternoon. Mrs Parker and her family were seated at a table on the highest of three tiers, away from the stage. They had a good view of the stage because the middle tier was one step down, and the lower tier another step down. Several hundred people were in the audience.
Mrs Parker was making her way through the tables to collect her children when she turned, and on her version, failed to see the step down to the middle tier, and fell heavily. She was taken to hospital in severe pain, and underwent an operation upon the radial head of the bone in her right arm.
At the time of the incident, the overhead house lights were down because a performance was underway on the stage. There was strip lighting on the inside edge of the step between the riser and the tread (at a 45 degree angle to both). There was also a wide metal strip on the nosing of the step. Strip lighting is a series of small lights in a plastic sheath in a continuous run. Many people know it as the strip affixed to the floor on aircraft aisles which is used as emergency lighting.
Factually, the case turned upon: (1) whether the strip lighting was on; and (2) whether the strip lighting was adequate to warn of the stair.
- The trial judge was satisfied that the Club had switched the strip lighting on.
- The trial judge concluded that the strip lighting was adequate to warn of the stair - on the basis of expert evidence, and on the basis that Mrs Parker was familiar with the auditorium layout, that she had navigated a passageway between the tables, that the strip lighting was visible about a metre away, and that a metal strip had been installed.
The trial judge concluded that the Club had fulfilled its duty of care and that Mrs Parker had sustained injury because she had failed to take reasonable care for her own safety. Therefore, her claim failed.
What safety precautions should leisure venues take for stairs?
Stairs are an obvious safety hazard. Clubs, hotels, restaurants and other leisure venue operators owe a duty of care to their guests to make using the stairs as safe as possible.
Leisure venue operators should consider taking these safety precautions for stairs:
- Install strip lighting to illuminate the stairs. Choose high brightness, not standard brightness.
- Strip lighting comes in strips of 1 to 4 metres - ensure that all of the strips are connected.
- A single on /off switch is best to avoid arguments that the strip might be partially switched off. In Parker’s case, the club had a single switch labelled ‘RISERS’.
- A metal strip should be attached at the nose of the step tier which should be reflective to enhance the effect of strip lighting.
- Although not mentioned as required in Parker’s case, a sign warning - Mind the stairs - would assist.
- Although not mentioned as relevant in Parker’s case, adequate barriers and banisters around the stairs would assist.
- The trial judge found that Mrs Parker had probably tripped upon a bag or other obstacle that a guest had placed on the floor, rather than falling down the stair. Mrs Parker did not allege that the Club or dance school was negligent by failing to make an announcement that guests should stow their belongings under chairs and not block the passageways. Venue operators should consider making such an announcement in auditoriums, and conducting ‘walk-throughs’ to check compliance. This would also help for fire safety.
- Allied to the desirability of keeping passageways clear is an obligation on the venue operator to not place tables and chairs in a position where they might obscure or obstruct a passageway. Again, this would help for fire safety.
- Function venues should have a checklist to be completed for every function, which includes that all safety lights, such as strip lighting, is switched on and inspected before the function, and is inspected during the function. A record should be made on the checklist of the time this is done and who did the checking.
- When an incident occurs, an incident report form needs to be completed. This was done in Parker’s case, but it was incomplete because it was not clear whether the source of the comments on the incident report was a witness to the fall or Mrs Parker herself.