Pook v Rossall School  EWHC 522 (QB)
The claimant was a pupil at the defendant’s school. At approximately 2:55 pm there was a physical education (‘PE’) lesson for mixed year groups. The particular activity that day was hockey and after the claimant had got changed she made her way towards the hockey pitch.
The claimant alleged that pupils were actively encouraged to run from the changing rooms to the hockey pitch. At the time of the accident, it was alleged that she was running to the hockey pitch and slipped on an area of grass and mud causing her to fall and sustain injury to her elbow.
The claimant had not kept to the pathway and instead had chosen to cut the corner and run over the area of grass.
It was alleged that the defendant had failed to properly supervise the PE lesson because the teacher had allowed pupils to run ahead unsupervised. Also, it was submitted that the defendant had failed to fence off the area where the claimant fell and had failed to implement a system to ensure that pupils did not walk on the grass.
The defendant denied liability and alleged that the claimant had tripped on the kerb separating the grass from the tarmac pathway. It was denied that the defendant was under a duty to fence off or prevent pupils from walking on the grass area. Also, it was submitted that even if the claimant had been running, it was not dangerous in itself to run and there was insufficient evidence to show that running, as opposed to walking, was the cause of the accident.
Court of Appeal decision
At first instance, the claim was dismissed on the basis that the claimant had failed to prove their case.
The claimant appealed the decision on the basis that the judge should have concluded that the risk of injury had increased because the claimant was running at the time of the accident.
It was held that the court should be slow to condemn a teacher as being negligent and to substitute its judgment for that of the teacher. It was specifically stated that a teacher will have knowledge of the school, the environment and the particular children that are under their care.
It was held that the judge had been right to conclude that there had been no negligence on the part of the teacher in allowing pupils to run from the changing rooms to the hockey pitch. It was specifically stated that schools across the country allow pupils to run to sports lessons unless the route takes them over busy roads or “… through an environment which is inherently dangerous”.
The Court of Appeal held that it is not inherently dangerous for children to run as long as they are careful. It was stated that it would be extremely difficult for teachers to stop pupils from running when they are on their way to a sports lesson.
It was noted that the teacher had carried out a detailed risk assessment, which showed that she was aware of her duty of care towards the pupils and took this duty very seriously. Also, the judge had correctly referred to the accident book entry and initial hospital attendance note, which recorded that the claimant had fallen forwards instead of backwards at the time of the accident.
It was held that the judge had sufficient evidence to reject the claimant’s pleaded accident circumstances. Also, it was noted that a tripping accident could have occurred whether or not the claimant had been running and as a result she had failed to prove causation.
The Court of Appeal held that the teacher had not been negligent in permitting children to run from the changing room to the sports lesson and there was sufficient evidence to entitle the judge to conclude that there was no breach of duty of care on the part of the defendant.
As a result, the claimant’s appeal was dismissed.
What this means for you
This is a positive judgment which shows the courts reluctance to place too onerous obligations on schools and their teachers. It is accepted that schools owe a high duty of care to their pupils but the extent of this duty of care will vary depending on the specific facts of the case, to include the foreseeability of the risk of injury, the nature of the risk, the risk of severity of injury, the age of the pupil and whether they had learning difficulties or known behavioural issues etc.
It can be seen that teachers have day to day experience of the school environment and of the pupils that they teach. In this case, the Court of Appeal agreed that the teacher was in the best position to assess what reasonable steps were required to ensure the health and safety of their pupils. Also, it is accepted that not all risks are clear cut and some rely upon a measure of discretion and judgment on the part of the person assessing them.
This case importantly shows that claimants must prove their case. Here, the claimant fell at the first hurdle because they were unable to show that the accident occurred as a result of them slipping and falling backwards. As a result, it was seen that the accident could have happened in any event, even if they had not been running at the material time.
It is recommended that sufficient risk assessments, policies and procedures are in place. The risks involved in respect of any activities undertaken should be carefully considered and where discretion is exercised, the reasons for reaching a particular decision should ideally be recorded.