School not liable for pupil’s death

Posted: 3rd July 2012

MoorlandThe mother of a 14-year-old girl who was swept to her death in a swollen river during training for the Ten Tors Expedition has failed in a £350,000 damages claim against a teacher and her daughter's school.
Amidst rain, wind and hail, Charlotte Shaw was trying to help a friend when she was caught by the powerful stream of Walla Brook, on Dartmoor, and drowned in front of her friends.
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At the High Court, her mother, Jennifer Wilkin-Shaw blamed her private school, claiming the language teacher supervising the teenagers was not competent for the task.
Mr Justice Owen, has now cleared the teacher, Christopher Fuller, and the school of any liability for the March 2007 tragedy - instead ruling that the primary cause of Charlotte’s death was the intervention of a kindly scout master who tried to help the exhausted teenagers.
The judge said that Mr Fuller had done the right thing when he told the pupils not to attempt a crossing of Walla Brook. However, that instruction, given over a mobile phone, was countermanded by scout master, Trevor Wills, who had encountered the bedraggled children at Watern Tor.
He directed the children across the brook, with fatal consequences, and the judge ruled: ‘This tragic accident was the consequence of the well-meant, but ill-advised, intervention of Mr Wills.’
Although it was foreseeable that the children might seek an adult's advice after failing to meet up with teachers at the Tor, the judge said it could not have been predicted that Mr Wills, who has since died, ‘would give bad advice, thereby putting the group at risk’.
In foul conditions, the group of 11 children, all pupils at independent preparatory school, Edgehill College, which has since been re-named Kingsley School, in Bideford, Devon, had set out alone on the gruelling leg of the Ten Tors route to Watern Tor unaccompanied.
As the children waited at the Tor for an adult to arrive, Mr Wills, came to their aid. Seeing the children in a distressed state, and fearing that hypothermia might set in, he advised them not to wait around and directed them across the brook.
The judge said that that ‘bad advice’ countermanded the instruction Mr Fuller had given the pupils that they were not to attempt a crossing but should make their way around the head of the brook to Hangingstone Hill.
That instruction was ‘entirely appropriate’, said the judge, who added that, although the children were ‘cold, wet and miserable’, they would have been capable of continuing with their trek.
Even had Mr Fuller, or the school, been found negligent, the judge said he would have found that Mr Wills' intervention ‘unquestionably amounted to an independent supervening cause’ of Charlotte’s death.
Dismissing the damages claim, Mr Justice Owen also rejected claims that the children should have been accompanied, or at least ‘shadowed’, by a competent adult on their way to the Tor.
Had Mrs Wilkin-Shaw won the case, she would have been entitled to an agreed sum of £350,000 in damages on behalf of her daughter's estate.