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Hull (a Minor) v Somerset County Council (2010)

1 November 2010
The issues

Occupiers Liability Act 1957 – OLA 1957 – school playground

The facts

When considering whether a local authority was liable under the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 to a pupil who fell and injured himself on a playground wall, the issue of ‘foreseeable risk of harm’ was not to be looked at with the benefit of hindsight. In the circumstances the claim against Somerset County Council was dismissed.

The Claimant was aged six at the time of his injury. He was a pupil at a primary school that was under the control, for the purposes of the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957, of Somerset County Council. On an ordinary school day he was playing with his fellow pupils in the school playground. Whilst participating in a game he ran up to a low height wall situated at the far end of the playground and attempted to jump onto it but missed his footing, causing him to strike his knee against the wall’s edge and sustain significant personal injury.

The wall had been in situ for over 20 years. There had been no previous recorded accident of the wall causing an injury to a pupil or member of staff. Further, there had been no complaints made whether by the parents or the teaching staff as to its presence, height or construction.

After the accident the edge of the wall had been sanded down and wooden planks placed on top. These measures, it was contend by Somerset County Council’s health and safety officer, were put in place to appease the Claimant’s Mother who protested about the wall’s condition and threatened to remove her son from the school. The court accepted that the measures were taken for these reasons and not as an acknowledgment that the wall was a source of danger.

In deciding whether the wall gave rise to a foreseeable risk of injury, the court looked at the photographic evidence and concluded that it displayed a fairly unremarkable wall. Furthermore no one, including the Claimant’s Mother and Grandmother, had considered it a danger prior to this one-off incident.

Whilst acknowledging that all school accident cases turn on their facts, the court considered and followed the approach taken by the Court of Appeal in the case of Ward v Hertfordshire [1970] WLR 356; and concluded – for reasons similar to those given by their Lordships – that the wall did not amount to a danger under the Act.

In an age where there is an increasing number of claims brought by parents against schools and those who control them arising out of ordinary playground injuries, this decision provides an encouraging example of common sense prevailing. It recognises three important truisms namely: (i) schools are not risk-free environments; (ii) injuries in play areas are part and parcel of a child’s passage through its formative years of life; and (iii) the mere fact that a child was injured does not of itself mean that the premises were in a dangerous condition.

Somerset County Council were represented by Kiril Waite (Counsel) and Veitch Penny Solicitors.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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