English Heritage has successfully defended a claim arising from a visitor tripping on a mobility ramp installed at Brodsworth Hall, a Grade 1 listed property in South Yorkshire (Hollywood v The English Heritage Trust (2021) (unreported)). There are few reported occupiers' liability claims associated with ramps and handrails and it is helpful to have further judicial guidance on this subject. We consider the case law and the obligations of owners and occupiers in this context.
The Claimant visited Brodsworth Hall in May 2019 with her husband who had mobility issues. Having completed their visit they decided to return to the site entrance using the courtesy buggy. This operated regularly throughout the day and dropped off and picked up from outside the tearoom. The entrance to the tea room is raised approximately 30 cm above ground level and a ramp and steps are provided to assist with access. The doorway opens out to a wooden platform from which two steps lead down to ground level to the front and a wooden ramp, adjacent to the wall, provides reduced mobility access to the side. The ramp is approximately 4 metres in length and has a raised edge on both sides approximately 4 cm in height to ensure mobility devices are not accidently pushed off the side. It does not have a handrail installed and the raised edge was not highlighted.
The Claimant alleged that she waited in the tearoom entrance for the courtesy buggy. When it arrived she walked from the doorway towards the buggy and tripped on the raised edge of the ramp, falling off and suffering a fractured shoulder.
She alleged that English Heritage was in breach of its duties under the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 and negligent in common law as it had failed to install a handrail; failed to highlight the top of the raised edge so that it was easily identifiable; failed to warn the Claimant of the edge's presence with warning signage and failed to properly risk assess the ramp.
Liability was denied by English Heritage.
The court heard from the Claimant as well as the driver of the courtesy buggy who witnessed the accident; the site manager and the head gardener who completed the pre-accident risk assessment.
The Claimant was unable to recall the presence of the steps in front of the ramp or whether there were other people around. She had been following her husband but could not recall the route she had taken or how she intended to get to the buggy either using the steps, the ramp or to step off the ramp. All she was able to say was that she was looking where she was going and was on the ramp when she caught her foot and tripped off it.
It was English Heritage's case that, at the time of the accident, there were other people on the ramp and the Claimant was rushing to catch up with her husband who had gone ahead. The eye witness recalled that the Claimant was in the process of trying to pass another visitor on the ramp but could not recall whether the Claimant had stepped off it or tripped on the edge. The witnesses confirmed that this was a busy, high footfall area and the ramp had been in situ for over ten years with no other reported accidents The raised edge was there to be seen and the ramp had been included in two pre-accident risk assessments. The risk assessments had concluded that the ramp was a possible tripping hazard but all reasonable measures had been taken to ensure the reasonable safety of visitors. This conclusion was based on the lack of previous incidents and the fact that fixing a handrail would be contextually and aesthetically problematic given the ramps' prominent location at the main visitor entrance to the Hall. It was conceded that post-accident additional control measures had been introduced with the raised edge being painted and high backed benches being placed adjacent to the outside edge. It was maintained that these were the response of a reasonable occupier following consultation with the area health and safety manager and had required curatorial permission.
The judge agreed there had been no breach of duty. There was no absolute duty on the part of English Heritage to keep visitors completely safe. The duty was to take reasonable steps to see that visitors were reasonably safe. On the evidence the Defendant had done so.
Of particular significance was the very high footfall around the property and that there had been no reported incidents in the past ten years. Although it was possible that there had been a fall which was not reported, the ramp was in a central area of the property and if an accident had happened then the expectation was that it would have come to the staffs' attention. The steps taken post-accident did not amount to an admission of liability nor a conclusion that they should have been done before.
Warning signage could have been erected but this was a matter of balancing aesthetics and risk and English Heritage were entitled to conclude that it was not required. In any event, the judge was not satisfied that signage or painting the edge would have prevented the accident happening. The Claimant was focussed on getting to the buggy and was not mindful of what was going on around her when she tripped on the edge. In the circumstances the Claimant had failed to prove breach of duty or causation.
There are few reported Occupiers' Liability claims associated with ramps and handrails. The two most recent have both been Scottish and although pursued under the Occupiers’ Liability (Scotland) Act 1960 the principles are broadly similar to that in England and Wales. In Forrest v Iceland Foods Ltd (2021) SC EDI 27 the Pursuer (Claimant) tripped on the rising side of a shallow ramp when walking from the customer car park to the supermarket. She alleged that she did not see it and tripped on a point near where it started to rise from the surface of the car park. The ramp was situated against a wall and was the same colour as the surface of the car park. The side edge was not highlighted and there was little contrast between the ramp and the car park. As a result it was difficult to see. There was also no handrail provided. The Defendant's store manager gave evidence that the ramp had been in situ for at least six years and there had been no other reported incidents. The area was regularly checked and inspected for tripping and slipping hazards and the ramp was not considered to be one. The court found for the Pursuer (Claimant). Although there had been no other accidents and the Defendant had checked the ramp regularly and did not consider it to be a hazard, taking into account all the factors it ought to have done.
In Brown v Lakeland Limited  CSOH 105 the Pursuer lost her footing and fell down a set of steps when leaving a store. There was no handrail installed and no signage directing customers to an alternative entrance where there was a ramp and handrail. The Defendant's evidence was that there had only been one other exceptional accident on the steps and otherwise they had complied with all the relevant legislation. Furthermore, there was no evidence that even if a hand rail had been present it would have prevented the accident or that the planning authority would have permitted one to be installed (the building was listed). The court dismissed the claim, placing significance on the fact that there was no history of accidents on the steps and that, even if a handrail had been present, it would not have prevented the accident.
What can owners/occupiers take away from these cases?
- A lack of previous accidents in an area of high footfall is persuasive but not conclusive. It must also be considered whether an accident would have been brought to the attention of the Occupier if it did occur
- Context is important when considering what are appropriate control measures. This is especially so when dealing with listed buildings when the balance of risk and aesthetics becomes more important. What would be appropriate on commercial premises would not necessarily be so on a building of historical importance
- Even if there has been a breach of duty the Claimant must still prove that the specific breach caused the accident.