Slip and Trip Appeal Sheds Light on School Care Obligations
Slips and trips are somewhat inevitable. Just as soon as we can walk we also learn that we are prone to involuntary falls.
Such incidents are, in the main, the reason why schoolteachers across the country can frequently be heard loudly reminding pupils to “slow down”, “take care” and “don’t run in the corridor”.
Falls which cause injury are a fact of life. We know this even from a young age and, most of us, are wary of situations that might put us at risk.
So it is generally accepted that in public and open spaces (everywhere, in fact) slip and trip accidents are an inherent and accepted risk. And yet, they are a risk we seek to regulate, legislate and litigate against. This is why we undertake risk assessments. This is why we have warning signs. This is why we have health and safety policies.
Slips and trips and the law – Pook v Rossall School
And so, slip and trip accidents present the law with something of a conundrum. We all know the risk of falling is around us more or less all the time, and also that those with a duty of care should be actively seeking to minimise this risk. So, how far do obligations reach in this regard?
This question was recently examined in the High Court Appeal of Pook v Rossall School .
The appellant was a pupil of the school. In the first instance the court was presented with evidence which outlined how she had suffered a serious elbow injury as a result of a fall emanating from a slip incident which occurred on the pupil’s way from school changing rooms to an astroturf hockey pitch during the course of a PE lesson.
The route from changing room to hockey pitch encompassed a footpath. However, in her enthusiasm to get onto the pitch, the pupil, who was running at the time, made a minor shortcut across a muddy and slippery area of grass. It was here she suffered her fall and the elbow injury which ultimately precipitated her personal injury claim.
The appellant suffered a serious supracondylar fracture to her right elbow. The injury has required at least three separate surgeries and consequential rehabilitation and physiotherapy.
The personal injury lawyer for the appellant argued that the incident was caused by the school’s negligence and that it had failed to take sufficient steps to protect her.
The legal team supported their case by detailing how the school teachers had actively encouraged pupils to run to the pitch, but, at the time of the slip and trip accident, had failed to keep the appellant within their observation.
It was alleged that the incident was the fault of the school:
- in failing properly to supervise the PE lesson;
- in failing to provide a fence or barrier to keep pupils off the muddy area where the claimant fell; and
- in failing to enforce an adequate regime to ensure pupils did not travel across the dangerous muddy area where an accident might happen.
Following the unsuccessful damages claim made in August 2017, the appellant’s case was heard in the High Court in Manchester in February 2018.
The appeal judge, Mr Justice Spencer QC, considered arguments from both sides before ruling that no negligence had taken place and there was no element of liable causation. He therefore upheld the ruling in the first instance of Her Honour Judge Beech .
The slip and trip case is interesting because it helps clarify the extent to which schools and other similar institutions owe a duty of care in relation to pupils, and those in their care, throughout the normal course of activities such as PE.
Although Mr. Justice Spencer QC took care to point out that the obligations owed exceeded those of parents at home, this did not extend to reducing risks to levels which could be considered the lowest reasonably practicable.
He said in his judgment, “Whilst there are some risks which no reasonable school or teacher would allow a pupil to run (running in corridors between classes for example), and other risks which it will almost always be reasonable to allow a pupil to run (for example the risk arising from contact and other sports), there will be situations in between which allow for a measure of discretion and judgment on the part of the teachers.
“In those circumstances, the court should be slow to condemn a teacher as negligent and to substitute its own judgment for that of the teacher where the teacher can be expected to have knowledge of the school, the environment, the particular children in her charge and her experience.”
Schools should note that they still have considerable obligations, and that they must use their discretion in this regard as there are some situations in which it is reasonable to allow a student to run on out of sight and others where it is not because it constitutes an unreasonable risk.