Key issues:

  • The Queensland Court of Appeal upheld a finding that the employer was not liable for the injuries sustained by an employee as a result of slipping on a grape in the employer’s premises.
  • The decision of the QCA provides a further reminder that an employer’s duty of care extends to taking reasonable steps for the safety of workers.
  • The decision confirms that, where there is a foreseeable but insignificant risk of injury, it is not incumbent upon employers to take every conceivable measure to avoid that risk.

In the recent decision of Deans v Maryborough Christian Education Foundation Ltd [2019] QCA 75, the Queensland Court of Appeal (QCA) upheld a finding that the employer was not liable for the injuries sustained by an employee as a result of slipping on a grape in the employer’s premises. The employer and its workers’ compensation insurer were represented by HopgoodGanim Lawyers’ Insurance team.

Facts

As outlined in our previous article, the appellant was a school teacher employed by Riverside Christian College. In 2015, she sustained injuries to her left knee after slipping on a grape when walking in a foyer area between classrooms.

The appellant alleged that the grape had been dropped by a student during a morning fruit break and that the employer ought to have had a system of inspection and cleaning in place during fruit breaks. The employer led evidence that no similar incidents had occurred in the five years since morning fruit breaks had been introduced and that an appropriate system of work was in place with regard to cleaning the school grounds.

Trial decision

In Deans v Maryborough Christian Education Foundation Ltd [2018] QDC 123, the Queensland District Court dismissed the claim and ruled that:

  1. the risk of an employee slipping on a piece of fruit and sustaining an injury was not foreseeable;
  2. the risk was insignificant, in circumstances where thousands of people had traversed the foyer during the fruit break in the five years before the incident and there had been no prior similar incidents;
  3. the employer did not breach its duty of care to the plaintiff; and
  4. it would not have been reasonable for the employer to abolish the fruit break due to the benefits that such breaks provided to students.

Following this decision, the appellant filed an appeal with the QCA, challenging the finding that there had been no breach of duty of care by the employer.

QCA decision

In a judgment handed down on 3 May 2019, the QCA dismissed the appeal with costs. The leading judgment was delivered by Justice Gotterson, with whom Justices Sofronoff and Morrison agreed.

The appellant had limited success in the QCA, finding:

  1. The risk of injury of the kind sustained was foreseeable and in particular:
    1. it was foreseeable that fruit carried by children through the foyer area might be dropped on the floor;
    2. it was foreseeable that a child who dropped fruit would not notice and pick it up; and
    3. it was foreseeable that even a person who was familiar with the fruit breaks, who failed to look at the floor in front of themselves while crossing the foyer, would slip on the fruit and injure themselves.

However the QCA held in favour of the employer, confirming the view of the trial decision that:

  1. The probability of the relevant risk occurring was very low and was therefore correctly categorised by the trial judge as insignificant.
  2. The appellant failed to establish any precaution that the respondent ought to have reasonably taken which would have avoided the risk of injury. The QCA noted that the school was not reasonably required to instruct the teacher to check for any spillage before traversing the foyer area after a fruit break, given that ‘adults know of the need to maintain some look out for objects on the ground as they move about’.

On the basis that the QCA found that the risk was insignificant and there were no additional precautions that could have been taken by the employer in the circumstances, the employer was held to have not breached its duty of care to the appellant.

Moving forward

The decision of the QCA provides a further reminder that an employer’s duty of care extends to taking reasonable steps for the safety of workers. Parties commonly involved in “slip and fall claims”, such as educational facilities and supermarket retailers, should be reassured by the findings of the QCA. The decision confirms that, where there is a foreseeable but insignificant risk of injury, it is not incumbent upon employers to take every conceivable measure to avoid that risk.