Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

School ice fall compo claim fails: It was just an accident judge tells teacher

The teacher was taking a class from St Bride's to a nearby church when she fell
The teacher was taking a class from St Bride's to a nearby church when she fell

A judge has thrown out a compensation claim taken by a teacher who broke her arm after slipping on ice – saying schools should not have to abandon activities because of the threat of injury.

Mr Justice Horner dismissed the negligence case taken against a Belfast primary school which he ruled had not acted carelessly when teacher Margaret McErlean fell while accompanying pupils on a walk.

The High Court judge ruled she wasn't entitled to damages for the "unfortunate accident".

Mr Justice Horner said all activities carry a risk, and that schools should not "abandon a worthwhile activity simply because there is a risk of injury".

Ms McErlean had claimed that her employer at St Bride's Primary was guilty of negligence after the fall in wintry weather in December 2010.

The teacher sued the school's trustees and board of governors over the accident. She was escorting nearly 50 pupils along Windsor Avenue to a nearby church for a Nativity play practice when she slipped and fell heavily.

The teacher, who had been at St Bride's for 22 years, fractured her forearm and was off work for a number of weeks.

It was agreed she would have been entitled to £25,000 in damages if her claim was successful.

The issue to be decided was whether her employer was liable for the personal injuries due to a breach of its statutory duty.

Weather conditions that winter had been harsh, with the temperature around freezing on the day of the accident.

The headmaster decided the trip to the church could go ahead after he walked nearly the entire route and concluded the footpath was passable with care.

Ms McErlean disagreed, complaining that it was foolish to make the journey in the conditions, but other teachers backed the headmaster's assessment.

Dismissing the action, Mr Justice Horner said: "All activities necessarily carry a risk and it is important that institutions such as schools do not abandon a worthwhile activity simply because there is a risk of injury."

Delivering judgment, he noted: "A frequent complaint is made that the present risk-averse culture makes it difficult for schools and other institutions to carry out many activities that they had carried out in the past.

"Reasonable care does not guarantee there will never be a risk of injury, or that every risk will be avoided, or that there will never be an accident."

The magnitude of the risk, its obviousness and previous experience have to be weighed in the balance as well as foreseeability, he pointed out.

Mr Justice Horner held that a foreseeable risk of slipping on a frosty footpath did not make it unsafe.

As he rejected the negligence claim, the judge said: "This was a most unfortunate accident. But the plaintiff's fall did not mean that the risk assessment had been carried out carelessly or that the headmaster exercised a lack of reasonable care."

Despite acknowledging Ms McErlean's frustration, he added that all activities involve an element of risk.

"On the facts that I have heard, I reluctantly conclude that this was a simple accident, which occurred without legal fault on the part of her employer."

South Belfast MLA Anna Lo welcomed the judge's stance on the compensation claim.

The Alliance Party member said her sympathies were with the teacher – but she agreed with the judgment of the court.

"I feel sorry for the teacher," she said. "It's very unfortunate but it's bad weather. It was in a public place and not on school grounds. I can understand her upset but I agree with the judgment of the court.

"It's an unfortunate incident but it's just one of those things."

QUOTE

"A frequent complaint is made that the present risk-averse culture makes it difficult for schools and other institutions to carry out many activities that they had carried out in the past. Reasonable care does not guarantee there will never be a risk of injury or that every risk will be avoided or that there will never be an accident."

Mr Justice Horner

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