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Richards v The London Borough of Bromley, Court of Appeal, 16 November 2012

22 November 2012
The issues

School – automatic closing mechanism – door – schoolchild

The facts

On 19 February 2007 the claimant, who was 15, had an accident at Langley Park School for Girls in Beckenham. She had been a pupil at the school since she was 11. She was leaving the extension block at ground level through an exit which consisted of a pair of metal and glass swing doors opening outwards from the centre. She pushed open the right door. Outside she stepped down five inches with her left foot onto a step. This was the single step between the door opening and the ground. She then stepped forward placing her right foot at ground level and at the same time released the door which had an automatic closing mechanism. As she was about to lift her left foot from the step behind her to make a further step forward towards the ground, the door came into contact with the back of her left heel, causing a nasty laceration requiring five stitches. The claimant was familiar with the doors and the step. She knew that the doors had a self-closing mechanism. She had gone through the doors many times before safely. The doors and step had been in place for about 30 years and there had been no previously recorded incident in which anyone suffered injury.

Because of this earlier accident the claimant’s case was that the second accident was reasonably foreseeable

The sole exception to that had been a relatively recent prior accident in October 2006 when another pupil called Miss Carpenter had suffered a trivial injury also to the back of her heel whilst passing through the door. That accident had happened when the girl was going through the doors and had hesitated, holding the door open for a girl behind her and, when the girl behind her rather than followed, had pushed open the left hand door not noticing that if she did so the door would hit the right leg or foot of the girl. The girl had gone to the receptionist but could not remember whether the receptionist had asked her how the accident had happened. The girl spoke to no one else at the school other than some of the girls in her tutor group. The parents took the matter no further and the incident was not recorded. Because of that accident, and even though it was not recorded, an investigation and a recommendation was made. The matter went to trial. The claimant’s case went to trial when the judge dismissed the claim. Leave to appeal was given on one ground only namely, whether following the first accident the school should have recorded and investigated, ensuring that they understood the mechanism whereby it had occurred and had taken appropriate steps to prevent a recurrence. Because of this earlier accident the claimant’s case was that the second accident was reasonably foreseeable.

The decision

After the first accident, the caretaker was told that the pupil had caught her foot on the rear door in the extension building. He was not told that the pupil had been injured. He went to look at the area, noted the height of the door above the step and assessed the relationship between door opening and step as being the cause of what had been reported to him. He completed a risk assessment form in which he reported as a hazard the step outside the rear doors to the extension building being too close to the doors. He ascribed a risk factor of low. Under the heading “who might be harmed and how”, he put in “staff/pupils stumbling/catching ankle”. He recommended that the step be raised. Because the step is in a busy thoroughfare and building works would be required to alter the step, the work could only be carried out during a school holiday.

After speaking to his line manager, the work was scheduled to be done during the half-term break in February 2007 but was later moved to Easter to allow the weather conditions to improve. The claimants’ case was that because the caretaker had not been told that Miss Carpenter had been injured, nor the precise nature of the injury, he did not appreciate that the problem was not simply the presence and depth of the step, but the combination of that and the metal strip at the bottom edge of the door. The claimant said that proper recording and investigation would have informed the caretaker of the circumstances and should have led to the school taking other steps prior to the works being done namely, fixing them open, making an announcement in the school assembly and warning pupils, or closing the doors until remedial works had been carried out on the basis that there was another exit to the building. The claimant also argued that a warning sign should have been placed on the doors and any sharp metal edge at the bottom of the door covered with tape or padding.

The claimants’ case was wholly unrealistic and unconvincing. Closer investigation of the earlier incident would reveal that a pupil had carelessly pushed the door open revealing that the door had banged into Miss Carpenters’ heel, breaking the skin in a minor cut requiring a sticking plaster. The judge had found that Miss Carpenters’ accident was the sort of thing that happened numerous times a day in every school in the country when children were going through a limited number of exits and entrances. The Court of Appeal would not go as far as the judge in saying that the injury to the claimant was impossible to predict. However, the injury to Miss Carpenter did not render reasonably foreseeable the more serious and very different laceration injury to the claimant. The similarity between the two accidents was superficial. The claimant had the Court of Appeal’s sympathy but sympathy was an insufficient basis on which to subvert the law of tort and it needed to be understood that not every misfortunate occurring on school premises attracted compensation.

Appeal dismissed.

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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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