Pupil hit in eye by rock thrown by another pupil aimed at a seagull; Court of Appeal finds local education authority failed to provide proper supervision of play area.  

On 12 July 2001 Scott Palmer, then aged 14 and a pupil in year 9 at a school in Cornwall, was hit in the eye by a rock thrown at a seagull, by another pupil. The accident occurred during a lunch hour in an outside play area. Supervision of the play area was organised on a rota basis and was carried out by dinner ladies. At the time of the accident only one dinner lady was on duty outside, supervising around 300 pupils. There was a designated area for years 9 and 10 at one end of a field and a designated area for years 7 and 8 at the other. Each area was about the size of a football pitch. A claim was brought against the Council as local education authority under the Occupiers Liability Act and in negligence. The claim was dismissed at first instance and an appeal was brought in relation to the claim in negligence.  

Held: To have one dinner lady supervisor who would be stretched to supervise over 150 pupils in years 7 and 8, only glancing occasionally at years 9 and 10, was clearly negligent. Since the purpose of appropriate supervision is to deter children taking part in dangerous activities the court should not be too ready to accept that the dangerous activity would have taken place anyway. There was no reason not to accept the evidence of Scott’s witnesses that if a supervisor had been near they would not have thrown stones because they knew that stone throwing was prohibited.  

Comment: Scott originally brought a claim against the pupil who threw the rock, but withdrew this before the liability trial. The recent case of Orchard v Lee, reported in the May edition of Liability Brief, confirms that findings of liability against children are unlikely to succeed. In that case a 13 year old boy playing tag at school was not liable for an accident involving a lunchtime supervisor.  

However, those involved in the supervision of children’s activities should be alert to the fact that they will need to show that sufficent supervision is in place in the event that an accident occurs. Arrangements for supervision should, if necessary, be reviewed.