Baker v (1) British Gas Services (Commercial) Limited and (2) J&L Electric (Lye) Limited [2017] EWHC 2302 (QB)

The facts

The claimant was employed by the first defendant as an electrician and worked in a team which provided electrical repairs and maintenance for retail and commercial clients. On the day of the accident, the claimant was replacing a number of lamps and whilst working at height was electrocuted. The claimant suffered from cardiac arrest and sustained a significant brain injury.

It was not disputed that the claimant sustained a massive electric shock via the casing of the light because the junction box to which it was connected had been incorrectly wired.

The second defendant was the electrical contractor responsible for originally fitting the lights in 2004 and it was the claimant’s case that the wiring error had been present since this initial installation work.

The claimant also argued that if the wiring error did not date back to the initial installation work in 2004, it was likely to have arisen during the maintenance works carried out by the first defendant’s employees.

Decision

The court concluded that the electrocution had occurred because the wiring error had resulted in the light fitting being live. It was held that the claimant had likely removed the light fitting to be able to check whether there was a plug and a socket. As the claimant was carrying out this work, the claimant’s chest came into contact with the light fitting and his right hand touched the earthed metal work in the void of the ceiling, which created the electrical circuit and resulted in electrocution.

The court held that the wiring error dated back to the time of the original installation in 2004. It was concluded that the second defendant had been responsible for the installation and failed to carry out the work properly. It was concluded that the wiring error was the fault of the second defendant but the first defendant was also responsible for the accident because its periodic inspections should have identified the error.

The court held that the second defendant was at fault for failing to ensure that the lights were properly wired when the initial installation work was carried out. Also, the first defendant should have detected and remedied the wiring error during the periodic inspections that were carried out.

In respect of contributory negligence, it was held that the claimant had acted reasonably in the circumstances. The court stated that it was not foreseeable that electrocution would occur and it was reasonable for the claimant to have removed the light fitting before isolating the distribution board. As a result, no contributory negligence attached to the claimant.

The court concluded that the second defendant should bear a greater share of liability because it had been responsible for the original wiring error. The court stated that the first defendant’s liability was on the basis that it failed to detect the defect with the wiring when it ought to have done so. The court made clear that there had not been any breaches in respect of the training provided to the claimant and on the whole there was a safe system of work.

The court apportioned liability on a 75% basis against the second defendant and on a 25% basis against the first defendant.

What this means for you

In this case, the claimant could not have foreseen what was going to happen because no one was aware that there was an error with the wiring. Also, the court was of the view that the claimant had not done anything unreasonable, unexpected or unsafe. It was therefore not surprising that contributory negligence did not attach.

It should be noted that the claimant’s training had not specified that the distribution board should be isolated prior to a light fitting being removed. Also, it appeared common practice for staff to remove light fittings, without first isolating the distribution board. This case could have been decided differently had the claimant been specifically told not to remove any light fittings in the ceiling prior to isolating the distribution board. However, it should be noted that the training provided to the claimant was seen as being reasonable in the circumstances.

It is important that electrical installation work is carried out to a reasonable standard by suitably qualified and competent employees. In this case, the second defendant had qualified staff to carry out the installation work but the work was not properly checked before completion. Also, there is the need for employers to carry out thorough inspections to ensure that any electrical installation work remains safe for staff that might have to work on it or maintain it. Here, liability attached to the first defendant because periodic testing had been possible and, if carried out properly, would have detected the wiring error.