the personal injury and clinical negligence blog

A collaboration between Rebmark Legal Solutions and 1 Chancery Lane

Punching inanimate objects and common sense

In 2010 Lewis Pierce was nine and a half years old and one day was playing at school with his younger brother George; both boys went over to a water fountain and George sprayed Lewis with water. George, seemingly not seeing the funny side then attempted to punch his brother, who being a sensible lad moved out of the way. Lewis missed George and ended up hitting the water fountain, cutting his right thumb. Consequently proceedings were started with the local authority as the Defendant, it being alleged that the water fountain had a sharp underside which amounted to a real and foreseeable risk. The judge at first instance agreed with this holding that there was a real risk that children might skylark around and could easily trip and cut their heads against the underside of the fountain (you’ll note that this wasn’t what happened to Lewis!). As such, Lewis was awarded £3,215.16. The Defendant appealed and the Court of Appeal (MR, McFarlane LJ and Sharp LJ) has today handed down their decision (West Sussex CC v Master Lewis Pierce (A child by his litigation friend Mrs Annette Pierce) [2013] EWCA Civ 1230. The Court allowed the appeal with Lady Justice Sharp noting that the trial judge had failed to identify and then answer the correct legal question. The judge failed to mention the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 and proceeded on the flawed basis that “once he had determined that the underside of the water fountain was sharp and there was a possibility that an accident might occur, the defendants were liable for what happened unless they had conducted what the judge described as a properly considered risk assessment.” Sharp LJ helpfully set out the correct question in such cases: “The question which has to be addressed … is whether as a matter of objective fact, visitors to the School were reasonably safe in using the premises, including for this purpose, the water fountain, bearing in mind of course that children do not behave like adults, and are inclined to lark around.” The answer to the question in this case was “yes”, the water fountain was reasonably safe (or more accurately that the evidence did not establish that it was not safe). The Court did not consider the underside of the fountain to be sharp (having had the opportunity to look at it) but even if it were sharp is was said that “by no stretch of the imagination could it be said to constitute a danger to children. Certainly the edge could be have been bevelled, or padded, and had that been done the claimant might not have injured his thumb. But to say that misses the point it seems to me. The School was not under a duty to safeguard children against harm under all circumstances … as a matter of generality, the School was no more obliged as an occupier to take such steps in respect of the water fountain than it would be in respect of any of the other numerous edges … against which children might accidentally injure themselves …”. In conclusion Sharp LJ said “The law would part company with common sense if that were the case, and I do not consider that it does so”.
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