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Apr 16th, 2015

Mind Your Head!

Samantha Whitehead reports on a case we successfully defended on behalf of the defendant at trial.

The claim was brought by an employee of the defendant’s who alleged that he had sustained a head injury and suffered a psychological injury after hitting his head on a low doorway in the defendant’s property. The claimant argued that the height of the doorway was not suitable.  

Background

During the course of his employment, the claimant had entered the holiday lettings home owned by the defendant. He had walked into the bathroom of the property and in his haste on exiting the bathroom he hit his head on the low doorway, knocking him to the floor.

The defendant’s holiday home was a 500 year old Grade II listed building. The doorway measured 5 feet 4 inches above ground, constructed out of a supporting wooden lintel. Upon renovation of the property, alterations to the height of the doorway to reduce the risk were considered. However, this would have meant rebuilding works which was prohibited by the Grade II listing.

The claimant had worked for the defendant for over two and a half years prior to the accident. He was fully aware of the height restriction and part of his role was to inform visitors to the property of that hazard.

The claim was brought under regulation 17 and 18 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and regulation 3 of the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 as well as common law negligence.  

Judgment

On reaching its decision, the Court considered the case of Palmer v Marks & Spencer 2001 and Hodgkinson v Renfrewshire Council 2011 which stated that ‘suitability’ had to be viewed in the context of each case on its own facts.

At trial the Judge commented, “This is a 500 year old building with a door that is 5 feet 4 inches. It is obvious that it is short. It is clear that if you don’t duck, you will bang your head.”

The Court accepted that alterations could have been made, for example, adding a leather cushion, however it was found that this would have prevented the doorway from closing.

It was concluded that, “On the balance of probabilities, the claim is not proved. The door was suitable and there was no negligence on the part of the defendant. Unfortunately, this was simply an accident.”

Comment Employers’ liability claims are notoriously difficult to defend and liability would have been strictly applied had the Court found that the doorway was not suitable.

However, each case will be considered on its own facts. In this case the Court adopted a common sense approach to the duty of care imposed on employers. If an employer can show that they have reasonably considered possible alterations to reduce a risk of injury, and can show that those potential changes would not decrease that risk, and/or would, in fact, create different problems, the court should be encouraged to take that into account when determining liability. Whilst this is a county court decision, it is encouraging that claims of this nature can be defended to trial.

Samantha Whitehead is a Senior Paralegal at Langleys Solicitors, acting on behalf of the NFU Mutual Insurance Society Ltd.  

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