Safety barriers not required at heritage site

Liddle v Bristol City Council [2018] QBD, HHJ Gargan

Summary

In the Liddle v Bristol City Council [2018] QBD, HHJ Gargan case, there was no duty on a council to erect railings or barriers to reduce the risk of someone falling from a quayside wharf. The risk was obvious.

Facts

In 2013, Sean Phillips was cycling along Princes Wharf in Bristol when he lost control of his bike and fell into the harbour. Sadly he died. A claim was brought against the council by his partner under the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 on the basis that the premises were unsafe because of inadequate warning signs and the absence of barriers. There had been previous concerns about the safety of cyclists. There are rail tracks at the wharf edge which are used by both electrically powered cranes and the Bristol Harbour Railway. Cyclists were known to catch their wheels in the tracks and the need for barriers was a question about which the council was “deeply exercised” with recommendations for and against this as a safety measure.   

Judgment

The claim was dismissed. The judge’s findings on the key points were as follows:

  • The accident happened when the rear wheel of the bike contacted the rail track.
  • The arguable danger arose from “the state of the premises” such that it was a claim to which the Occupiers’ Liability Acts applied.
  • There was adequate signage warning of the presence of the tracks, the potential danger to cyclists and advising use of an alternative route in the form of a cycle path.
  • The danger of the unprotected wharf edge and the risk of falling were obvious such that there was no duty to erect barriers.
  • The risk profile was low. There had only been one other previous incident of a cyclist falling into the harbour and the erection of barriers potentially created other risks including the safe operation of the wharf and attracting children to the edge to sit on the barriers.
  • Further signage and/or installation of heritage barriers at the site would not have prevented the accident.  

Comment

In essence this is another helpful judgment for local authorities (and other landowners) confirming that where a risk is obvious there will often be a good argument that there is no duty to guard or warn against it. Whilst confirming that the heritage aspect would not outweigh a more pronounced risk of injury, the judge also noted that “the public benefit from the heritage aspect is a factor to be taken into account…and provides an additional factor for preserving the historical aspect of a building”.   

We have updated our recent occupiers’ liability update to include the case and this can be accessed here.

For further information about Weightmans LLP or to discuss any of the issues in this update, please contact Peter Wake, Head of Local Government Litigation (0151 242 6866, peter.wake@weightmans.com). 

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