On 14 February 2018, McCabes was successful in the ACT Supreme Court in overturning a judgment entered against its client Limelight Cinemas, in the ACT Magistrates Court.
This illuminating case demonstrates that a mere breach of a relevant code or standard will not automatically result in a defendant being held liable for a resultant injury. It also provides a useful reminder of the need for plaintiff’s to establish that any breach (if established) was actually causative of the plaintiff’s injury.
Angela Beatty (the plaintiff at first instance and the respondent) claimed that Limelight Cinemas (the defendant at first instance and the appellant) was liable in negligence for injuries she suffered on 23 March 2012, when she fell down the stairs within a darkened movie theatre located at Tuggeranong Hyperdome.
Limelight Cinemas was the occupier and manager of the cinema complex at the material time. It had no control over the movie theatre fit out, nor did it receive any complaints regarding the lighting or falls by patrons during the course of its management.
When Ms Beatty entered the movie theatre at approximately 7.00pm with her two daughters the trailers were showing and the theatre was almost at full capacity. The lights had been dimmed to a half-state.
As there were not allocated seats within the movie theatre, Ms Beatty walked with her daughters to the far side of the cinema and ascended the stairs to the upper level of seats. After identifying two free adjacent seats, Ms Beatty seated her children with the intent to descend the stairs to sit in an individual seat located two rows further down.
As Ms Beatty proceeded to turn around to travel back down the stairs, she claims to have stepped into ‘nothing’ and subsequently fell. She sustained injuries to her left foot and left wrist.
At first instance Her Honour Magistrate Boss found for Ms Beatty, deeming that Limelight Cinemas failed to adequately light the aisle which constituted a breach of its duty of care “and caused the plaintiff’s injuries”. Her Honour reduced the award of damages recoverable by 10% on account of Ms Beatty’s own contributory negligence in failing to adequately take into account the nature of the stairs as she descended.
In reaching her decision, the Magistrate preferred the plaintiff’s expert evidence of Dr Watson, who deemed that the illumination of the stairs was non-compliant with the requisite Australia Standards, albeit by only 0.3 of a lux. On the other hand, the defendant’s expert, Dr Cooke, opined that when the effect of the reflective aluminium nosings on the steps was taken into account, the lighting on the stairs was adequate, despite the visible lights being minimally below the requirable standard.
In her reasoning the Magistrate found that it was open to Limelight Cinemas to approach the building owners for confirmation that a lighting engineer or technician had certified the lighting as appropriate, and to take appropriate steps to have the lighting increased once determined that it fell 0.3 of a lux below standard.
Limelight Cinemas appealed the decision on the basis that her Honour erred in her assessment of breach of duty, causation and contributory negligence. The appeal was heard by Her Honour AsJ McWilliam.
Her Honour found that the Magistrate misapplied the applicable legal principles, specifically the test with regard to risk of harm. Referring to the case of Roads and Traffic Authority of NSW v Dederer  HCA 42, she noted that the ‘risk’ that ought to have been considered was the risk of injury being caused by the defendant’s conduct, rather than the risk of an event that, in turn, carries a risk of injury. She further commented that even if the ‘risk’ had been correctly identified, there was a further issue concerning what constituted a ‘reasonable response’ to it, considering that the appellant had no knowledge of any defect in the lighting.
McWilliam AsJ emphasised that before a finding could be made that Limelight Cinemas breached its duty by failing to ask the building owner for confirmation that the lighting was compliant, there would need to be a finding that it knew or ought reasonably to have known that the lighting did not comply. Such a finding was never made by the Magistrate, nor could it have on the evidence given at hand.
McWilliam AsJ found that the Magistrate erred in finding that the failure of Limelight Cinemas to adequately light the aisle caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
Her Honour the evidence given by Ms Beatty at trial that she stepped into ‘nothing’ to be a ‘mis-step’, given that her evidence was not that she fell due to an inability to see any part of the steps. In particular, neither Ms Beatty’s evidence nor the evidence of Dr Watson supported any finding that the lighting had any causative effect, so as to constitute a ‘necessary condition of the happening of the harm.’
Due to her findings on the other grounds of appeal, McWilliam AsJ deemed that consideration need not be given to contributory negligence as Limelight Cinemas was not negligent in the first place.
The decision of AsJ McWilliam highlights the common sense position that just because an occupier’s premises may be found very slightly in breach of a standard or code, it will not automatically lead to a finding of negligence against the occupier. The court is required to consider other factors including, the role of the occupier (in this case a lease/manager), knowledge of the risk (in this case set against an incident-free usage), and what impact the breach had (in this case on the evidence of Dr Cooke none, as the reflective strips provided sufficient illumination).
This decision further highlights the importance of clearly establishing causation in the assessment of liability. When incidents occur as a result of an everyday risk, such as negotiating stairs, there needs to be a clear causal connection between the defendant’s conduct and the incident itself. As noted by McWilliam AsJ, “the idea that stairs are inherently and obviously dangerous, and that members of the public should exercise care when using them, carries even greater force when the circumstances are the navigation of stairs in a darkened room...”. In this case, the plaintiff could not establish that her fall did not simply occur due to her own mere inadvertence.
Finally, this case also emphasises the importance in demonstrating an incident-free history of a premises when it comes to determining an occupier’s foreseeability of an alleged risk.