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Viola player wins case against Royal Opera House over ‘acoustic shock’

Christopher Goldscheider became unwell after sitting in front of an 18-strong brass section during orchestral rehearsals

A leading viola player’s hearing was irreparably damaged by loud music during rehearsals, the High Court has ruled.

In the landmark case, which could have repercussions for orchestras up and down the country, Christopher Goldscheider claimed he was exposed to unacceptable noise levels in the pit at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2012.

Mr Goldscheider, 45, from Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, said he suffered “acoustic shock” and became unwell after sitting in front of an 18-strong brass section during orchestral rehearsals for a performance of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

On Wednesday, Mrs Justice Nicola Davies ruled in his favour on the issues of breach of duty and causation of injury, with damages to be assessed.

The index exposure was the playing of the principal trumpet in the right ear of the claimant Mrs Justice Nicola Davies

She refused the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation permission to appeal although it can still apply directly to the Court of Appeal.

Mr Goldscheider, whose claim for lost earnings alone is almost £750,000, said he had to give up playing or even listening to music.

His counsel, Theo Huckle QC, said the effects of the injury – including hypersensitivity to noise – had “seriously diminished his life in all significant respects”.

Mr Goldscheider,  he added, was exposed to an average noise level of 91 decibels over a three-hour period and, despite him wearing ear plugs, that gave rise to a “substantial risk of injury”.

The Foundation, which runs the venue, contended that his condition was not caused by playing in the orchestra.

David Platt QC said Mr Goldscheider had been provided with ear protection and the opera house had gone “as far and, if anything, further than the reasonable employer” to reduce noise levels.

The judge said that the Foundation was in breach of a number of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005.

She added: “In my view there is a clear factual and causal link between the identified breaches of the Regulations and the high level of noise which ensued at the rehearsal.

“It commenced with an inadequate risk assessment, continued with a failure to undertake any monitoring of noise levels in the cramped orchestra pit with a new orchestral configuration which had been chosen for artistic reasons.

“Even when complaints were raised, the three-hour afternoon rehearsal was commenced and completed in the absence of any live time noise monitoring.”

Had the Foundation complied with its statutory duty, Mr Goldscheider would not have been exposed to the level of noise which he was, she added.

She was satisfied that the noise levels at the rehearsal were within the range identified as causing acoustic shock.

“The index exposure was the playing of the principal trumpet in the right ear of the claimant whether it was one sound or a cluster of sounds of short duration.

“It was that exposure which resulted in the claimant sustaining acoustic shock which led to the injury which he sustained and the symptoms which have developed, from which he continues to suffer.”

Royal Opera House lawyers told the court at the earlier hearing that possible precautions would involve “very significant cost for a very limited gain”.

They said that, for example, extending the orchestra pit into the auditorium would cost £1.3 million with an annual loss of £2 million in revenue, while the resulting reduction in sound levels for a viola player would be “negligible”.

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