On 23rd April 2013 the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act received royal assent. One of the most controversial changes that it will introduce is an amendment to the Health and Safey at Work Act 1974, the effect of which will be to abolish civil liability for breach of the various ‘six pack’ regulations which govern employer’s liability. The regulations can still be relied upon as evidence of a failure to exercise reasonable care, but the burden will rest with the injured employee to prove that the accident has been caused by the negligence of the employer.
The difference between liability for negligence at common law, and the stricter requirements of regulations emanating from Europe, was brought into sharp focus by the recent court of appeal decision in Hide v The Steeplechase Company (2013) EWCA Civ 545. The claimant was a self-employed jockey. He jumped the first hurdle at Cheltenham racecourse when his horse stumbled and fell. It careered sharply to the right, which caused Mr Hind to fall, hit the ground and roll sideways into one of the upright posts of the guardrails surrounding the track.
The Defendant was able to produce quantities of evidence that the track had been audited and inspected by relevant regulatory bodies and found to be of the highest standard in terms of safety. Indeed, the Court of Appeal commented that the course had received consistently ‘glowing recommendations’ and that no concerns had ever been raised about the safety of the fencing or its proximity to the hurdle.
However, the Claimant relied upon regulation 4 of the Provision and use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. The argument, in simple terms, was that, applying Robb v Salamis (2007) ICR 175, work equipment which might foreseeably cause injury was not suitable. Accordingly, since the fence and hurdle were work equipment (a point which was not appealed) and since it was foreseeable that a rider might fall off a horse whilst negotiating a hurdle and strike the fence, suffering injury, the equipment was therefore unsuitable.
The trial judge found that the Claimant bore the burden of proving that injury was foreseeable. He held that no accident had ever taken place before, that this accident occurred in a truly bizarre fashion, the risk of injury and falling was inherent in horse-racing and it was not reasonably foreseeable that the Claimant would suffer injury in the way that he did.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal reiterated that it was irrelevant that the precise mechanism of the accident was not foreseeable: only foreseeability of some injury was necessary. This was a point that the House of Lords had already emphasised in Robb v Salamis and, to this extent, the judgement takes the law no further. However, the Court went on to find, after a careful analysis of the Work Equipment Directive, which implements the 1998 Regulations, that:
1) Once the Claimant shows that he has suffered injury as a result of contact with a piece of equipment which may be unsuitable, the burden shifts entirely to the Defendant.
2) The Defendant can only escape liability by proving either that the accident was due to unforeseeable circumstances beyond its control or to exceptional events the consequences of which could not be avoided in spite of the exercise of all due care on his part.
Somewhat bizarrely, therefore, the Court of Appeal has brought the fault of the employer back into the equation under Regulation 4 (whereas previously only foreseeability was relevant). However, at the same time, it has set the hurdle (no pun intended) so high as to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the employer to discharge the burden in the vast majority of personal injury claims.
On the facts of the case, the racecourse had not shown the accident fell within either of the narrow exceptions above and liability was therefore established.
The decision in Hide will no doubt be cited, by proponents of the new legislation, as a fine example of the reason that change is required. The judge at first instance, whose decision was overturned, regarded the Claimant’s arguments as demonstrating “the relentless logic of the personal injury lawyer”. The Court of Appeal plainly had some sympathy with this position but concluded that the Regulations simply “give rise to a form of liability which is a stricter liability than at common law” It will be interesting to see what extent the same case would be decided differently after the new legislation comes into force.