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Mind Your Fingers!

Ashford v Somerset County Council 22 November 2010, Yeovil County Court (Unreported) 


Finger trapping case raises interesting questions concerning a School's duty to its pupils regarding doors 

The Claimant was a 9 year old primary school student. His last lesson  was a drama class with around 15 other pupils. When the lesson ended, his teacher asked the class to line up to exit the room and return to their own classroom to pick up their belongings and go home. After the pupils lined up, the teacher placed herself at the front of the queue, opened the door, and led the children out into a central corridor of the school. The Claimant was at the back of the line.

After he exited the drama room, the Claimant turned round to talk to some friends that were still in the drama room leaning on the door frame with his fingers in the hinge of the door as he did so. The teacher was now some way down the corridor. Suddenly the door closed trapping his fingers and consequently caused him to lose the tip of his left ring finger. 

The Claimant subsequently brought an action against the Defendant for breach of statutory duty under s2 Occupiers Liability Act 1957 and 17(3) Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999 and also in negligence.

The claim was dismissed however. The Defendant’s duty in the circumstances was to take such care of the children at the school as would be exercised by a reasonably careful parent, but this did not require it to take reasonable steps to ensure the complete safety of its pupils. It was foreseeable that schoolchildren would fall or trip on stairs for example, but that did not make premises with stairs unsafe. There was a difference between such commonplace features and guarding against, say, a large drop with banisters.

The safe negotiation of doors in particular was part of the everyday experience of children, indeed it was reasonable to expect that a child of the Claimant’s age would be familiar with doors, just as he would be with steps and it was reasonable to assume that he should have been able to use them properly. Just because door closures or hinge protectors were available to guard against risks posed by doors did not mean any duty was breached if they were not utilised. Essentially, it was not necessary to use such protection as a child was reasonably safe without it.

It was true that the Defendant had not assessed the risk of the Claimant’s type of accident occurring at the dram room door in particular, but the Court found it was unnecessary to do so. No incident of an accident similar to the Claimant’s had ever happened since the school was built in 1989 and in absence of any special dangerous feature (such as tendency to slam), there was no requirement for such an assessment.

It also specifically argued by the Defendant that were it to be found liable in the instant case, the necessary consequence would be that every door in every School or indeed every other public building children were likely to have access to would have to be fitted with hinge protectors, having obvious far ranging consequences for not just local authorities, but also owners of shops, restaurants, theatres etc. It was found that the Defendant was right to point this out.

The Claimant is currently seeking permission to appeal. 

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