Defender hotel not liable for the pursuer’s fall from steps

The Sheriff, in dismissing the pursuer’s claim, held that the defender was not in breach of its obligations under s.2 of the Occupiers’ Liability…

Norgate v Britannia Hotels Ltd, Sheriffdom of Lothian and Borders at Edinburgh [2018] SC EDIN 46

Introduction

The Sheriff, in dismissing the pursuer’s claim, held that the defender was not in breach of its obligations under s.2 of the Occupiers’ Liability (Scotland) Act 1960 (“the Act”) by not providing a stair handrail at their hotel.

The facts

The pursuer had booked a trip to Adamton House, a listed building hotel owned and run by the defender. The pursuer was, at the time of the accident on 20 July 2015, an 83 year old lady with walking difficulties. Upon arrival at the hotel, the pursuer, together with her husband and daughter had taken a little walk to explore the premises. Deciding to leave the building by the main entrance steps into the porte-cochere, the pursuer navigated the first two of four steps by holding her husband’s shoulder.

When descending the third and penultimate step, the pursuer thought that she had reached the final step and instead of bringing her left foot down beside her right foot, she placed her left foot on the nosing of the step and fell, sustaining severe injuries. The pursuer alleged that the defender was in breach of s.2 of the Act as had there have been a handrail to use on the worn steps then she would have used it and that would have prevented the fall. The treads of the stairs showed signs of damage and patchwork repairs had previously been carried out. It was accepted that the third step where the fall occurred was not worn.

The defender denied liability on the basis that the stairs, without a handrail, were not a danger or hazard to visitors. They could be safely negotiated by anyone taking reasonable care for their safety. There had not been any other reported accidents on those stairs. The height of the stairs and absence of a handrail were compliant with the Technical Handbook for Mandatory and Guidance Standards produced under the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004.

Judgment

The court held that the pursuer’s case, presented on a breach of s. 2 of the Act must fail for two reasons. First, it was not a worn step that was causative of the fall but, instead, the fact that the pursuer believed she had reached the final step. Secondly, even if the defenders had been under a duty to install a handrail to reduce the risk of falls on the worn steps (which they were not); their failure to do so was not causative of the pursuer’s fall. As this was a listed building, it was not an option to the defender to simply install a handrail. Permission would have been required.

The court accepted that it would have been possible for the defender to install a handrail after receipt of architectural advice but it was not the handrail that caused the fall. It was also held that even if a handrail had been installed at the time of the accident, on a balance of probabilities the court could not be satisfied that the pursuer would have used it or would have had the physical strength to have held onto the handrail. The pursuer had failed to establish that the general condition and nature of the steps at the defender’s premises presented a danger to visitors and gave rise to a duty that required precautions to be taken by the defender.

Comment

This case highlights that an occupiers’ duty under the Act is to take reasonable care for people who come on to their premises. The Court in assessing what is reasonable, will look at the facts and circumstances of each case. Liability will not automatically attach to occupiers of premises where there is an absence of a handrail on stairs.

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