The recent case of Ruth Geary, who took the decision to slide down a particularly impressive banister in a manner similar to that of Mary Poppins, and the ensuing claim made by her against the owner of the building for the substantial injuries she suffered when she fell, acts as a useful reminder to all landowners to be aware of their liability to visitors.


Occupiers' liability in England and Wales finds its roots in common law and is developed by statute; the Occupiers' Liability Acts of 1957 and 1984. An "occupier" can be the landowner, a tenant or even someone who organises an event on someone else's land. Provided that the occupier is shown to have a sufficient degree of control over the premises then a duty of care to those who come on to the premises can be established. The question is to what extent is that duty of care owed.


In Ruth Geary's case the answer was, none. When Ms Geary performed her tribute to Mary Poppins by attempting to slide down the banister she fell some four metres on to the marble floor below resulting in her tetraplegia. She claimed against the owner of the building, JD Wetherspoon Ltd, on the basis that the company was negligent for not demonstrating the appropriate duty of care to her. The Court, ruling in favour of JD Wetherspoon Ltd, stated that Ms Geary chose to do something that was inherently dangerous and therefore accepted the risk of injury.


The Geary case and the other recent case of Kylie Grimes, an 18 year old girl who dived into a pool, hitting her head on the floor, support the trend being followed by the Courts that people should take responsibility for their own actions. With Kelly Grimes, the Court decided that she chose to dive into "an unremarkable swimming pool on domestic premises", an act that carried an obvious risk and that no amount of action reasonably taken by the occupier would have prevented her from sustaining her injuries.


A case providing more food for thought is that of Furmedge v. Chester-Le-Street District Council. In this case the organisers of an event on the Council's land were held liable as occupiers of the Council's land and the owners of a large inflatable sculpture. The sculpture comprised a number of eggshaped coloured cells or units that were interconnected. When inflated, visitors could walk through the tunnels and voids created between the units. A gust of wind caused the sculpture to break free from its moorings and blew it into the air. Two people inside died and a number of others were injured. The Court held that both the Council and the organisers of the event were liable for not taking appropriate steps to reduce the level of risk to visitors.


The case of Fowles v. Bedfordshire County Council should also be considered. In this case, Mr Fowles, a 21-year-old student, attempted a forward somersault using gymnastics mats at a youth centre operated by the Council. The failed attempt resulted in permanent spinal injury. The Council were held liable for not properly providing the facilities with the appropriate supervision and instruction. The Council's decision to provide such facilities imposed an obligation that such provision be appropriate to cover the risks.


Occupiers must have particular regard to children. Although it can be reasonable for an occupier to expect a parent to control their child, it is not always possible for children to be supervised. Many premises, such as building sites, are subject to the 'allurement principle'. Such premises can be very alluring to children and therefore more care must be taken to deter young people.


Owners of land should regularly review the state and condition of their properties. It is vital that they have a real awareness of actual and potential risks on their land and a strategy for dealing with them. Although the claims in the Geary and Grimes cases above were dismissed, the outcome may have been very different had there been an unexpected or hidden hazard, with no warning. Common law supports the view that, if occupiers demonstrate an appreciation of risks on their land and take action, such as displaying warning signs, then they will be best placed to discharge their duties to the visiting public.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.