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Slip Slidin' Away - Geary v JD Wetherspoon Plc

In November 1977 Paul Simon released his “Greatest Hits” album. It included two new tracks one of which was the smooth ballad, “Slip Slidin' Away”.

Fifty years earlier in The Carlgarth [1927] P93 Scrutton L.J. had a different form of sliding in mind when he famously illustrated how the law has always distinguished between the duties owed by occupiers to lawful visitors to their premises and the more limited obligations that might be owed to trespassers by observing that:

“When you invite a person into your house to use the staircase, you do not invite him to slide down the banisters, you invite him to use the staircase in the ordinary way in which it is used.”

In Geary v JD Wetherspoon plc [2011] All ER (D) 97 (Jun); [2011] EWHC 1506 (QB) Coulson J. was faced with precisely that situation. On the evening of 29 March 2007 the Claimant, Mrs Ruth Geary, had been drinking with some work colleagues at The Union Rooms, a pub in Newcastle City Centre, owned and operated by the Defendant, Wetherspoons. The premises had formerly been a gentleman’s club.

One of the original features of the building, which had deliberately been left untouched, was a grand open staircase in the centre of the building with sweeping banisters on both sides. On her way out of the building with her colleagues, the Claimant hoisted herself onto the left banister with the intention of sliding down it. Unfortunately she fell backwards and landed on the marble floor some 4 metres below. She sustained a fracture to her spine resulting in tetraplegia.

The essential issue at trial was whether there was a voluntary assumption of an obvious and inherent risk by the Claimant in circumstances which would negate any liability on the part of the Defendant. The Claimant submitted that her own conduct, whilst plainly relevant to the issue of contributory negligence, could not amount to a defence in law. The Defendant argued that the Claimant had voluntarily assumed the obvious risk inherent in sliding down open banisters which, on one side, had a long drop to the marble floor below. As a result the Defendant argued that it could have no liability in law to the Claimant.

The claim failed. The judge held the Claimant had deliberately taken the risk that she might fall. She had not intended to fall but due to a momentary misjudgment she did. The principle of voluntary assumption of risk was fatal to her claim. The Claimant had freely chosen to do something which she had known to be dangerous. She was therefore the author of her own misfortune. The Defendant owed no duty to protect her from such an obvious and inherent risk.

This case serves as a useful (and many might say timely) reminder that the mere fact that there is a foreseeable (and foreseen) risk of injury does not, of itself, create a duty of care particularly in circumstances where the duty contended for is to protect the Claimant from his or her own foolishness. As Coulson J. pointed out in his judgment:

“It is foreseeable that a man walking towards a cliff will cause himself serious injury, but there is no liability in law on the passer-by who does not point that out”.


Comments (1) -

  • Thomas Crockett

    7/29/2011 12:53:41 PM |

    On a common theme of stairs and handrails etc!

    Broadfield v Meyrick Estate Management Ltd (27/7/2011)  (unreported) CA (Civ Div) 28/7/2011:

    An employer had been in breach of its obligation to provide a suitable and sufficient handrail in accordance with reg.12(5)  Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 in circumstances where it had failed to provide a continuous handrail along the entire length of a staircase. However, an employee's claim for personal injury failed on the basis of causation where it could not be established that the presence of the handrail would have prevented the injury.

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