Hufton v Somerset County Council 07.07.11

Court of Appeal upholds first instance decision that school was not liable for slip; the Defendant had a reasonable system in place.

On 11 October 2006, the Claimant, who was then a 15 year old pupil at Ansford Community School, slipped and fell on a small area of wet floor in the main assembly hall. She suffered an injury to her knee. The following system had been introduced by the school as a result of a risk assessment carried out by the school’s health and safety manager following a previous slip in 2000:

  • On days when it was raining a sign was placed by the fire exit doors to that effect.
  • This operated as an instruction to school prefects not to let pupils enter the hall through the fire exit doors but rather through the foyer at the other end of the hall.

On the morning in question it started to rain during the break. Before the school had the chance to erect the wet weather signs, some pupils entered the hall through the fire exit doors and the rubber mats by the doors did not absorb all the water they brought in. At first instance His Honour Judge Bromilow dismissed the claim on the basis that the Defendant had reasonable and appropriate procedures in place. The Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal on the basis that the Defendant did not have a proper system in place for:

  1. Preventing the assembly hall floor from getting wet
  2. Clearing up water if the floor did become wet

Held

  1. Lord Justice Jackson held that there was no basis on which to interfere with the Judge’s conclusion that the Defendant had a reasonable system in place to prevent the floor from becoming wet, even though that system failed on this occasion.
  2. The decision of the Court of Appeal in Ward v Tesco Stores Ltd [1976] was considered. However, in this case the evidence did not show that liquid gathering on the floor was a frequent problem. It was not realistic to say that the school should have had a system in place whereby a small area of water should have been spotted and mopped up during the brief period of time between its arrival and the moment when the Claimant slipped.

Comment

The Claimant’s best point was that there was a “gap” in the system, as there would inevitably be a short delay before the sign was put in place. Whilst Jackson LJ commented that he found this a difficult point, he stated:

“It is not possible, and the law does not require, the occupier of premises to take measures which would absolutely prevent any accident from ever occurring. What is required both by the common law and by section 2 of the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 is the exercise of reasonable care.”

Defendants and their insurers will be reassured that, provided there is evidence that a reasonable system was in place, slipping claims can be successfully defended. However, on a slightly more pessimistic note, organisations inviting customers or members of the public into their premises should not look too deeply at this case for reassurance. Such organisations would need to demonstrate a more thorough procedure to fall within the Ward v Tesco Stores test.