Personal injury, Negligence, Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957
Spearman v Royal United Bath Hospitals NHS Trust. Hospital liable for claimant’s fall from a roof on basis of negligence.
Spearman (a protected party) v Royal United Bath Hospitals NHS Trust  QBD
The defendant hospital was held liable for the claimant’s fall from a roof that he had accessed after walking out of the A & E department shortly after his arrival by ambulance.
The claimant, aged 46, was diabetic and also had an acquired brain injury. From time to time he suffered hypoglycaemic attacks which would make him confused. After one such attack on 5 May 2011, he was taken to hospital by ambulance. Shortly after arriving, and in a fleeting moment when the nurse went to collect the appropriate forms, the claimant walked away. He passed through a number of doors and accessed a flat roof via stairwells. He then used furniture on the roof to climb over the 1.4m high barrier fencing and either jumped or fell, suffering serious injuries.
The hospital was held to be negligent and in breach of the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 (“the Act”). This was largely on the basis that the doors providing access to the staircase and the roof were unsecured such that the premises were not reasonably safe for confused and vulnerable patients. The judge rejected the suggestion that the claimant had attempted suicide; rather, he held that in a confused state, the claimant was determined to leave the hospital (a setting he strongly disliked).
The judge made some interesting observations on the key points:
- Visitor or trespasser – the claimant did not become a trespasser (so as to take him outside the scope of the Act) at the point he left the A & E department through the door. The door had no lock or warning sign and the claimant’s confused state of mind was relevant since it meant his actions were an honest mistake.
- Negligence – the “occupancy duties under the Act” (and relating to the state of the premises) were concurrent with other duties relevant to the “the overall operation of the enterprise” which included the safe management of patients by restricting access to certain areas.
- Contributory negligence – the key issue here was the claimant’s decision to climb over the barrier. No reduction was made on the basis that to do so would be to penalise the claimant for being of a state of mind that did not allow him to appreciate the danger.
The judgment in this case is an interesting read for public sector organisations whose duties as occupiers often come under scrutiny in civil claims. Whilst the physical condition of premises will often be a key issue, a duty under the Act will co-exist with other duties. In a school case this will include a common law duty of care to take reasonable steps to ensure that pupils are kept reasonably safe while on school premises, something that is different to the occupancy duty under the Act. In this case it was the hospital’s duty of reasonable care to vulnerable patients in terms of their movement around the premises.