Liddle v Bristol City Council, High Court, October 2018

HHJ Gargan

Few cases deal with the extent of an occupier’s duty at a designated heritage site. Our recent High Court success on behalf of Zurich insurance and Bristol City Council provides helpful guidance for local authorities and landowners.

On 6 March 2013 Sean Phillips was cycling to work along the Princes Wharf outside the M Shed industrial museum in Bristol. He was cycling close to the edge of the 14.5m wide wharf. He lost control of his bike and fell into the Harbour and tragically died. A Coroner's Court in 2014 reached a conclusion of accidental death. A claim was brought by his partner on behalf of herself and his dependents against Bristol City Council on the basis that the Council should have installed edge protection and that existing signage warning against cycling should have been clearer.

The M Shed, formerly the Bristol Industrial Museum, opened in 2011 and is part of the City Docks Conservation Area. Outside the M Shed, on Princes Wharf, are a series of rail tracks used for electrically powered cranes and the Bristol Harbour Railway. The wharf is a working heritage wharf. When in use the cranes move up and down the tracks, in addition to passengers embarking and disembarking boats.

For many years there have been concerns about cyclists trapping their wheels or slipping on the rails. Several signs had been put up to warn cyclists of the danger of the rails.

Within Bristol Council there had been a significant debate for many years as to whether railings should be erected along the edge of the quayside. Strong views were expressed on either side of the debate by health and safety advisors, Museum staff and local heritage groups. The objections to railings were essentially that they could increase risks to workers mooring boats, they could draw young people to the edge and they would not be in keeping with the heritage environment of the area. Moreover whilst cyclists did catch their wheels in the tracks, there was only one known incident of a cyclist falling into the harbour over decades with no injury sustained.

We defended the case on the basis that there was adequate signage to warn cyclists of the danger of the rails, a designated cycle route had been put in place to take cyclists around the back of the M Shed away from the quayside and there was no duty to put up railings under the Occupier's Liability Act as the risks were very low and the danger was obvious.

HHJ Gargan gave judgment on 19 October 2018 in favour of the Council. He considered the signage was adequate to alert the Claimant to the risk of the rails. The signage also clearly directed the Claimant away from the quayside and he made the choice to cycle along the Princes Wharf, close to the edge. Whilst the Council had not put in place warnings about the unprotected drop, HHJ Gargan considered the risk was obvious, the quayside was 14.5m wide and therefore a reasonable cyclist would be aware of the drop and could chose to cycle away from the edge of the quayside. He went on to the find there was no duty to erect barriers where the risk was very low and, in fact, barriers would have created other risks. He also accepted our argument that the type of heritage rails which may have been installed would not in fact have prevented the deceased from toppling over into the water anyway.

Finally he noted that there is a public utility in preserving the dockside heritage and, whilst this should not serve to distort modern health and safety, preserving the historical aspect is important.

Overall the High Court has provided a common sense judgment which should reassure local authorities and others responsible for heritage areas which incorporate obvious dangers.