The Court of Appeal overturned an ACT Magistrate's Court decision for failing to apply the correct test for establishing negligence regarding injuries suffered after a fall in a cinema with alleged insufficient lighting.
- Whether error in finding breach of duty by occupier cinema.
- Whether breach of duty caused injuries.
In 2012, Angela Beatty (the respondent) went to a cinema occupied by Limelight Cinemas Pty Ltd (the appellant) in Tuggeranong. The respondent entered one of the cinema theatres whilst the advertisements and movie trailers were playing, which meant the lights were dimmed. The respondent missed a step when trying to find a seat which caused her to fall and suffer injuries to her left foot and wrist.
The respondent brought proceedings in the Magistrates Court of the Australian Capital Territory against the appellant for negligence. The central issue was whether there was a failure to provide sufficient lighting, and if so, whether that was the cause of the respondent’s fall.
The Decision at Trial
The Magistrate accepted the respondent’s expert evidence that the illumination of the stairs was non-compliant (by 0.3 lux) with the relevant Australian Standard, and held that the risk of falling where there was poor lighting was not insignificant. The appellant’s failure to confirm or check compliance with building owners or electricians, or to take steps to improve the lighting, was a breach of duty which caused the respondent’s injuries. Damages of $100,000 were reduced by 10% for contributory negligence.
The Decision on Appeal
The Court held that the Magistrate applied the incorrect test for establishing a breach of duty. The risk that ought to have been considered was the risk of injury being caused by the appellant’s conduct. The relevant conduct is a failure to take precautions against a ‘risk of harm’ that is foreseeable and not insignificant. The requisite consideration is the probability that the harm would happen if precautions were not taken.
Here, the Magistrate should have considered the probability that the identified lack of illumination on the stairs might cause a person in a cinema with dimmed lights to fall because they could not see. The Magistrate’s reasoning did not establish that there was any change to the probability of a person falling on dimly lit stairs through the lack of additional (0.3 lux) lighting. In any event, no finding of breach of duty should have been made without considering what a reasonable response would have required. Given the evidence established that the appellant did not know the lighting was non-compliant, it was not unreasonable for it not to have taken any steps in relation to it.
No reasons were given by the Magistrate to support the bare conclusion that the breach of duty was causative of the respondent’s injuries. This alone was sufficient to uphold the appeal. Nevertheless, the court observed that the respondent was required to prove that the 0.3 lux deficiency in lighting contributed in some way to her misstep and fall. The evidence did not enable such a finding. The Magistrate’s finding on causation was set aside.
Implications for you
This decision is a reminder that non-compliance with relevant standards does not presuppose breach, and that a finding of breach is not sufficient without also establishing a causative link between the breach and the harm.