Although this case involved a local authority it will be of interest to universities and colleges. Occupiers of property owe a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure visitors do not suffer harm or injury while present on the land. Visitors include people like customers of a shop, residents of a hotel, workmen whom the occupier invites onto the land. It includes members of the public if they are on the land with the owner’s permission. The recent case of Harvey v Plymouth City Council (2010) concerned a claim against the council by a person who had suffered an accident whilst on the council’s land.
The council owned some waste ground though it was unaware of this until the accident. A perimeter fence enclosed the area. On the other side of the fence was a strip of land of between one to two metres in width. Beyond that was a five metre drop to a supermarket car park. Evidence showed that for years groups of teenagers had gathered on the land to use it as a meeting place.
The accident which led to the court case occurred after dark. The claimant had been drinking and ran onto the land towards the perimeter fence. As it was dark he did not see the fence and he tripped over it at a point where it had been pushed down to a level of only fourteen inches. His momentum carried him forward so that he fell the five metres onto the car park. The court decided the council had not expressly permitted teenagers and others to use the land for recreation. However, by its inaction the council had impliedly permitted their entry onto the land. This meant the council owed a duty to see that they were reasonably safe whilst on the land. However, in this case the court held the council had only consented to the public using the land for “normal recreational activities, carrying normal risks”. This did not extend to an inebriated person running across the land late at night. So the council had not breached its legal duty and the claimant’s action was dismissed. Though the landowner in this instance was successful in avoiding liability, the case is a reminder of the legal duty under the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 which landowners owe to visitors to their land.