The public sector team recently defended a claim on behalf of a local authority, relating to an accident at a local school for students with learning difficulties, when the claimant fell from an adapted bike sustaining injuries.
Facts of the case
On the day of the accident the claimant was being rewarded for good work and was allowed to choose an activity of choice. The claimant chose to ride a recumbent/three wheeled bike around one of the school yards. The school had a number of adapted bikes for students to ride. Whilst the claimant was riding the bike, the bike tipped causing the claimant to sustain a fractured arm.
Allegations were made that; the claimant had not ridden the recumbent bike before, a helmet was worn but not fastened, the lap belt was not strapped onto the claimant, no instructions were provided on how to ride the bike and there was a lack of supervision. The council denied the allegations and maintained that the claimant had ridden the bike in question before and had chosen to do so as they enjoyed the activity. The evidence from the school was that a teacher and teaching assistant had ensured the claimant was wearing a secured helmet and had strapped the claimant into the bike. The teacher maintained she had provided instructions appropriate to the specific learning needs of the claimant. The staff had been trained on the use of the adapted bikes, and the claimant was closely supervised almost on a 1 to 1 basis during the activity.
At trial the deputy district judge praised the claimant as an excellent witness. The judge stated it was understandable that the accident had been significant in the claimant’s mind, but this had caused the claimant to be mistaken in their account of the accident. Thus the judge found the claimant’s and the father’s accounts were wrong. Most notably the claimant had stated in witness evidence that the bike in question did not have a seat belt. However, a picture of the specific recumbent bike used clearly showed there was a lap strap.
The judge preferred the council’s witness evidence and found them to be credible and reliable. The judge accepted that the claimant had ridden the recumbent bike before and that the helmet and lap strap on the bike were both fastened. The judge accepted that two teachers solely concentrating on the claimant would not have overlooked this.
It was held there was no breach of duty or negligence on the part of the council and the claimant had failed to discharge the evidential burden. It was found that the school staff were fully responsive and attentive to the claimant’s need and wanted to provide a good experience. The school had appropriately instructed and supervised the claimant whilst using the bike. The claim was dismissed.
This decision accords with the court’s common sense approach taken in the school case that we recently defended to trial.
Whilst local authorities can be reassured that the court is taking such an approach, there are always lessons to be learned to ensure that school’s are doing all they reasonably can to minimise such risks and provide safe learning environments. The case highlighted some learning points:
- To keep written records of the training provided to staff on the adapted bikes and a signature sheet to confirm attendance. It was the defendant’s evidence that such training did occur but there were no documents to support this. Such records would have circumvented this aspect being challenged in cross examination.
- To periodically review risk assessments and their adequacy. The school had carried out a risk assessment of the adapted bikes. However, it was undated and there was no evidence of it being regularly reviewed. The format of the risk assessment did not clearly set out the risks and control measures in place.
- If an accident does occur, document an accurate account of the circumstances as soon as possible after the incident. The contemporaneous notes can be key and will also assist in provoking recollections later down the line.
- Ensure any emails or correspondence relevant to the accident and the issues raised are located as soon as possible so they can be considered for disclosure. An email sent from the school to the claimant’s parents a month prior to the accident had not been drawn to the attention of the parties involved until trial. This email was pertinent to the issue concerning whether the claimant had ridden the bike before.
- The witnesses are key to defending a claim of this nature. The staff came across as caring, professional and consistent in their evidence. They were impressive at trial which is ultimately why their evidence was preferred.
Article written by Rebecca Bannister