Health and safety at social events

Posted: 10th December 2013

WheelchairA student who was left wheelchair-dependent after diving into a paddling pool during 'horseplay' at a drama college summer ball has had his compensation hopes dashed by the High Court.

The student suffered a devastating spinal injury when he ran 15 to 20 metres before leaping, on the spur of the moment, into the two-foot-deep inflatable pool.  He sued the college, arguing that it had breached the duty of care it owed him by failing to carry out appropriate risk assessments or take other steps to guard against participants injuring themselves.

Dismissing the claim, the Court ruled that the college owed no such duty and that, even if it had, the accident was not reasonably foreseeable. The student was himself one of the organisers of the event and no risk assessment would have prevented him from diving into the pool in the 'out of character' way that he did.

Lawyers representing the student argued that the college should have been put on the alert by 'dangerous horseplay' involving the pool that had occurred during the previous year’s ball. A proper risk assessment would have led to diving or jumping into the pool being banned and safety measures being put in place, such as supervision, signs and barrier tapes.

The Court acknowledged that the events of the day had begun in a 'haphazard and disorganised fashion' and that health and safety responsibilities had ‘fallen between the metaphorical cracks’. However, it found that taping off the pool would have been 'disproportionate and somewhat patronising' and that the college was under no duty to warn the student organisers about avoiding 'plain and obvious risks'.

Emphasising that the organisers should not blame themselves or feel  that they had let others down, the Court found that, even had more rigorous safety measures been adopted, the accident, which happened in a matter of seconds, would still probably have occurred.

Expressing its sympathy for the student, Mr Justice Jay concluded, "Throughout this trial he has acquitted himself with complete honesty, integrity and decency. He accepted that this was a spur of the moment decision, and I consider that it was out of character, or more precisely that no-one should be judged on the basis of one-off impulsive actions. On a human level, I regret the conclusion that I have reached but, to my mind, the legal principles are clear and the weight of authority overwhelming."