Carl Grunewald, who acted on behalf of the local authority, takes us through the case which should embolden local authorities to defend claims where accidents have occurred on school premises, if reasonable precautions have been taken by the school and an accident is not foreseeable.
The Claimant, aged ten at the time of the accident, was participating in a PE lesson on an afternoon in June 2014 at a primary school in the London Borough of Southwark. In charge of the lesson was a supply teacher who was assisted by a teaching assistant. At the end of the PE lesson, the pupils suggested to the teacher that they should all take part in a sprint race. The teacher agreed, and proceeded to split the class into two, with the girls and boys taking part in separate sprint races.
The girls raced from one end of the playground to the other without incident. However, during the subsequent boy’s race, there was a collision between the Claimant and another pupil, P. The Claimant fell to the ground sustaining a fractured skull and an alleged traumatic brain injury. In view of the potential value of the claim the parties agreed that liability should be tried as a preliminary issue.
The Claimant claimed that he saw P slipping into him as the playground was wet and that after the lesson P had told him that he had slipped and it was not his fault. The teacher did not witness the accident. The teaching assistant claimed that the accident occurred as a result of P veering into the Claimant as he was not looking where he was going, and that whilst the playground may have been damp (though not wet) the weather did not cause or contribute to the accident.
The headmaster of the school had prepared a risk assessment which provided that the “playing surface must be dry”, that “children should not be exposed to wet surfaces”, and that “where running activities take place in school, there are appropriate procedures in place to check that all pupils safely complete the course”. “Space, length of run off, distance between teams and individuals” were to be considered by the teacher. The teacher in charge of the lesson, a supply teacher who had taught at the school for a few weeks in total on different occasions, had not previously taken a PE lesson and had not previously organised a sprint race. She had not seen the risk assessment prior to the accident.
The Claimant claimed that the accident occurred as a result of:
i) the weather conditions, claiming that it was wet at the time of the accident and the school should not have allowed a sprint race to take place on a wet surface, especially as the school's risk assessment stated “playing surface must be dry”; and
ii) there being insufficient spacing between the pupils.
The Claimant claimed that earlier in the day there had been heavy rain and that the pupils had to go inside during break time on the morning of the accident because the rain was so heavy. He claimed that the PE lesson took place whilst the playground was still very wet and that there were visible puddles. He said that normally the PE lesson would be held inside if it had rained a lot and that he was therefore surprised to have gone outside at all.
The Defendant’s witnesses said there may have been some slight rain on the day of the accident, but only enough to make the surface of the playground “damp”, rather than wet. The teacher and the teaching assistant said they were aware that if it was wet, PE lessons should take place in the hall, rather than in the playground. In the accident report form prepared by the school it was stated that the weather was “damp” and that the cause of the accident was a “slip”.
The Claimant relied on a weather report providing readings from the weather station closest to the Claimant’s accident, some 2.4km away. The report showed that there was some rain on the accident date amounting to 0.740mm with the wettest hour being 0.273mm between 10:00am and 11:00am. The amount of rain was described by the author of the report as “slight”.
Distance between pupils
The starting line of the race measured approximately 15m. There were 8 pupils taking part in the boy’s race. The pupils were instructed to run about 50m to the wall at the other side of the playground. Though the starting line was 15m, there was a bicycle shelter in the corner of the playground in line with the finish line, and this therefore meant that the pupils had to be spread out across approximately 12m to avoid running into the shelter or having to adjust the direction they were running as a result of its presence.
The parties agreed that there was approximately 1.5m between each of the students. The Claimant claimed this was inadequate, that it was foreseeable that a child would veer off course, especially in light of the shelter, that there should have been fewer pupils participating in the race, and that there should have been tramlines to guide the pupils while racing.
The teacher was confident that she had spaced out the pupils evenly across the 12m line, and that she had taken the bicycle shelter into account. The Defendant’s witnesses all considered 12m to be a suitable amount of space for 8 pupils to race in. Whilst the teacher could not remember whether or not she gave any specific instructions to the pupils before the race, she thought she would have told them to be safe and mind where they were going; perhaps something to the effect of “make sure you run in a straight line” and “stay on your course”.
HHJ Curran accepted the Defendant’s evidence in relation to the weather conditions, concluding that the surface of the playground was no more than damp, not wet. He concluded that P had simply veered off course into the Claimant, rather than slipping as a result of a wet surface.
Whilst the Defendant’s risk assessment stated that the surface “must be dry”, the judge found that this was a counsel of perfection and it was not unreasonable for this not to have been strictly adhered to. He found that there was sufficient space between the runners and that the teacher and that the presence of the bicycle shed in the corner of the playground did not cause or contribute to the accident, and that there was no need for the teacher or teaching assistant to deliver complicated instructions.
The judge agreed with the Defendant’s submission that section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006 was engaged, which provides that:
“A court considering a claim in negligence or breach of statutory duty may, in determining whether the defendant should have taken particular steps to meet a standard of care (whether by taking precautions against a risk or otherwise), have regard to whether a requirement to make those steps might (a) prevent a desirable activity from being undertaken at all, to a particular extent or in a particular way, or (b) discourage persons from undertaking functions in connection with a desirable activity.”
The judge found that taking part in a race was a desirable activity, and whilst the collision was unfortunate and was not the Claimant’s fault, it was not reasonable to hold the Defendant liable as it was not reasonably foreseeable that the Claimant’s accident would have occurred.
This judgment should embolden local authorities to defend claims where accidents have occurred on school premises, if reasonable precautions have been taken by the school and there is no foreseeable risk against which further precautions should be taken.
A defendant will not necessarily be found liable for failing to comply with its own risk assessment. It will depend in all the circumstances whether the risk assessment was reasonable to adhere to.
The courts are willing to make findings under section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006 on the basis that desirable activities should not be prevented.