Personal Injuries Update
Court awards significant damages to injured physiotherapist after fall on stairs
Covey v State of Queensland  QSC 23
A physiotherapist working at a Queensland Hospital has successfully claimed damages from her employer, the State of Queensland, after sustaining personal injuries following a stumble and fall on stairs within the hospital grounds.
The Plaintiff was employed as a physiotherapist at the Hospital. On 31 May 2010 the Plaintiff was attending a routine meeting within the hospital grounds. Eschewing the elevator, the Plaintiff elected to make use of an internal stairwell to travel from the ground floor to the first floor, as she had done on multiple prior occasions. As she climbed the stairs on this occasion, however, the Plaintiff stubbed her toe near the top tread and lost her balance, yanking her left arm in the process. There were no witnesses to the incident.
The lighting in the stairwell at the time of her fall was alleged by the Plaintiff to be noticeably dim and dull.
Subsequent investigations into the stairwell by expert engineers found a large variation between the height of the steps which was outside the permitted tolerances contained within Australian Standard 1657, with the largest variance found where the Plaintiff had fallen. It was commonly accepted at trial that height variances between steps is a trip hazard which can increase the risk of a fall and that a relatively inexpensive way of addressing the risk would be through capping the existing steps with an appropriate amount of concrete. The use of non-skid strips (which were subsequently installed to the stairs) would also have assisted with judging where to put ones feet.
The State of Queensland sought to argue that, as the stairs were designed for emergency use, the relevant Australian Standard did not apply. Nor was there any evidence that the stairs were unsafe for their intended emergency use and, further, that the Plaintiff was negligent for not looking down at her feet as she climbed the staircase. Not unreasonably, the State of Queensland also sought to rely on the absence of any prior complaints about the condition of stairs as well as there being no evidence of any prior accidents having occurred within the stairwell as justification for having taken no action to address the risk of injury posed by the height variances.
The trial judge of the Supreme Court was not convinced by these arguments. Noting that the stairs had been in existence for many years, if not decades, without complaint, the judge nonetheless considered that the risk of tripping and falling on the stairs was foreseeable and that the duties of an employer to establish, maintain and enforce a safe place at work extended to accident prevention. Had the State of Queensland arranged for the stairwell to be properly inspected prior to the Plaintiff's accident, the latent defect within the stairs could have been identified and rectified without great expense. The judge also rejected the argument that the Plaintiff had been negligent in failing to look down at her feet as she climbed the stairs, finding it likely that the Plaintiff's failure to pay attention to the height or position of each step was because she had successfully negotiated the steps in the past without any incident.
As a consequence of her injuries the Plaintiff was unable to continue working as a physiotherapist. Damages were awarded in her favour slightly in excess of $1,600,000.00, plus her legal costs.
Local governments are well tuned to the risk of injury posed by stairs in the public domain. Whilst a local government will not be held to the same stringent standard of care as an employer in relation to its public assets, this decision reinforces the need for local governments to properly turn their minds towards assessing whether their assets consist of potentially hazardous traps, notwithstanding the absence of any prior complaints or incident notifications.
For more information on this article, or to discuss liability issues further, contact Mark Williams or Darius Isaacs on (07) 3243 0000.
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