Defendant employer liable for $1.6M damages to employee for failure to take simple and inexpensive measures to improve the safety of emergency stairs.

In Issue

  • Whether the plaintiff’s employer ought to have taken steps in respect of an emergency stairwell with no history of complaints or incidents.

Background

The plaintiff was employed as a physiotherapist to work at Charters Towers Hospital (the hospital), which was owned and operated by the defendant. The plaintiff was injured whilst ascending a stairwell at the hospital. After she stubbed her toe on a stair tread, she stumbled backwards, reached out to grab the handrail and fell awkwardly and injured her shoulder.

The plaintiff argued that the stairs were dangerous and relied on expert evidence. She also claimed the lighting in the stairwell had improved since the incident, but led no evidence of this. A work colleague gave evidence that she had subsequently fallen on the stairs and that non-skid strips were later placed on each step by the defendant. The defendant argued that the stairs were assigned for emergency use only and a lift was available for general use. The defendant also claimed the stairs were safe as there had been no prior incidents or complaints.

Decision at trial

Both parties relied on expert engineering evidence. The court noted that whilst the engineers’ opinions differed greatly, they agreed that there was a variation in the height of the risers of the stairwell which was greatest in the area where the plaintiff tripped. The experts also agreed that a significant variation could create a trip hazard and that a simple and inexpensive way to respond to the inconsistency was to cap the existing treads with concrete. Further, the black and yellow nose capping tape which had been added subsequent to the incident would assist in the accuracy of placing a person’s foot on the stairs.

The court held that the stairwell constituted a danger because of the “trap” caused by the inconsistent riser heights. There was no evidence that the defendant prohibited the stairwell from being used by employees or provided any warning of the risks of using the stairs. It was likely that the defendant was aware that its employees used the stairs regularly, including because of an increasing awareness in the community of the health benefits of walking and exercise.

Although there had been no complaints or prior incidents involving the stairwell, the court found that, as part of the defendant’s duty of care to its employees, it should have turned its mind to the safety of the stairwell. An inspection by an intelligent layman would have suggested that the installation of strips at the nose of the stairs and good lighting at the very least were necessary. Further, the exercise of care would have suggested that the stairway be examined by a competent expert given the risks and lack of prior examination. A competent and skilled expert would have identified the defects which could have been rectified without any great expense. The court therefore held that the defendant breached its duty of care to the plaintiff.

Implications for you

This case demonstrates that a court will not necessarily find that the absence of prior incidents or complaints is evidence that a set of stairs is safe and that it was reasonable for a defendant employer to simply do nothing. In matters involving injuries to employees on stairs, insurers should bear in mind that a court will consider that it is an employer’s duty to turn its mind to potential risks which have not yet arisen.