The plaintiff, Debbie Ann Deans, who was a school teacher at Riverside Christian College in Maryborough slipped and fell after stepping on a grape outside a school classroom. The result was a fractured knee and an assessment of damages by the Queensland District Court (the Court) of over $350,000. Unfortunately for Deans, the Court found that liability had not been proven and consequently no damages were awarded.
On the morning of the incident, Deans was walking from one classroom to another. The unseen grape was located in a foyer outside three classrooms containing Prep and Year 1 students. At 9 am every morning, the students partook in “fruit break” which was a health initiative adopted by the school whereby students would retrieve a fruit snack from their bags in the racks in the foyer and take it back to the classroom where it was consumed.
There was no dispute that children of such a young age could be somewhat careless and may on occasion drop and leave some of their fruit on the ground. The teacher walked past around “fruit break” time when she slipped and fell.
The main thrust of Deans’ case on liability was that the system for dealing with litter arising from this circumstance was inadequate. The school gave evidence that there was a general system for dealing with litter which applied across the whole school whereby teachers were rostered on at breaks to pick up litter or to direct students to pick it up. Grounds staff also assisted with picking up litter. There were no particular staff resources dedicated to “fruit break” litter over and above the usual way of doing things.
The Court found that the school’s system for dealing with litter was appropriate. Even if a system of inspection had been instituted to monitor “fruit break” litter, it was unlikely that a single grape would have been identified and removed before the teacher walked through the foyer. The Court found that many of Deans’ submissions about what precautions should have been taken were based on hindsight reasoning, whereas the question must be looked at prospectively from the point of view of the defendant (i.e. the school) at that point in time.
The Court was impressed by the fact that, in five years of running “fruit break”, the school had recorded no incidents of anyone falling over as a result of spilled fruit. Deans presented no evidence of similar problems at other schools with similar initiatives, nor departmental or academic discussion of the issue, which could have put the school on notice of the risk.
The Court concluded the incident was not reasonably foreseeable, there was insignificant risk of it occurring, and there were no other precautions that the school should have taken to prevent the incident occurring.
This decision demonstrates that an injury occurring at work does not necessarily lead to a finding of liability. The plaintiff must prove a breach of duty of care based on what the defendant knew, or ought to have known, at the time the incident occurred.
An appeal has been lodged against the Court’s decision and we will report on the outcome of that appeal.
This article was written by Daniel Sullivan, Associate, and Cameron Seymour, Partner
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