Occupier's Liability

by Daniel Menell

Although tripping accidents which occur other than on a highway are not covered by the Highways Act, similar principles apply in establishing liability for a claim for personal injury and compensation. The Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 (OLA) imposes a duty of care on those who own land or property, or those who have a measure of control over it. Although the OLA applies to slipping and tripping accidents, it also applies to many other types of accidents as well. Compensation claims do not always fall neatly in to just one category of accident, and often, claims can be based on allegations of a number of breaches of various statutes as well as breaches of common law. The OLA is a frequently cited statute. An "occupier" of land or premises is an individual or organisation who is in sufficient control of it. As a simple example, a private company may own land which is let to and used by another company who operate a car park on that land. Someone who has an accident on that land is likely to find that the correct defendants, in the event they suffer personal injury and wish to claim compensation, are the car park operators if they have overall responsibility for the upkeep and running of the land. If however the contract between the companies specifies that upkeep of the land is to be the owner’s responsibility, then the owner and possibly even both owner and occupier will be liable.

The OLA provides that occupiers must take "such care as is in all the circumstances of the case reasonable, to see that the visitor will be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purposes for which he is invited or permitted by the occupier to be there."

If someone were electrocuted by a faulty light switch in their hotel bedroom, the hotel would on the face of it be liable under the OLA. If however the hotel had employed a qualified electrician to change the switch, and they had left the switch in a dangerous condition, the duty of care owed by the hotel might be considered to pass to the electrician. The question is whether the occupier acted reasonably in entrusting the work to an independent contractor, and whether he had taken steps, if needed, to ensure that the contractor was competent.

Doubtless you have seen signs in a variety of places of business which seek to limit liability for injury. Such signs often give the visitor a warning that the occupiers accept no liability whatsoever for any injury suffered by the visitor. Such signs appear in car parks, supermarkets, shops, post offices, even solicitors practices. I acted for a lady who was unfortunate enough to have an exit barrier fall on to her when she was walking through a car park. Having regained consciousness she noticed a sign on the wall which prominently displayed such a disclaimer. She had assumed that the sign would be binding, and only phoned me up on the off chance to check the position as she was suffering considerable ongoing problems following the head injury she sustained. The law on this issue is quite clear. The Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 provides that liability in negligence for personal injury or death can not lawfully be restricted or excluded. In other words, such signs are completely meaningless. Although perhaps not pointless, at least from the perspective of the business where the signs are displayed. Doubtless every year a great many people who would have a perfectly valid compensation claim are put off even seeking legal advice on the basis of these exclusion notices.

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