A risk such as an incident like slipping on wet steps could land you into serious trouble as a residential occupier. For example, if someone slips on wet steps on your property and suffers severe injuries, you could be liable for negligence in this instance for not taking necessary steps to minimize risk. We look at the Queensland Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Silwood v Chandler to further explain this.
Kayleen Chandler and Clive Silwood were in a previous relationship and were the parents of a two week old baby at the time. On 9 September 2008, Ms Chandler wanted to catch up on some sleep and Mr Silwood agreed to look after the baby.
Ms Chandler arrived with the baby at Mr Silwood’s home at 8:30pm later that evening. It was dark and the light at the front of the home was not illuminated. Ms Chandler did not know that earlier that day Mr Silwood had noticed some bat droppings and had hosed the front wall of his house down. As a result, the steps under the wall were wet and as Ms Chandler approached the front door, she slipped on a wet tile on the stairs. She outstretched her arms to try and stop herself from falling and in the process injured her right arm and bled heavily having damaged an artery.
As a result, Mr Silwood was sued by Ms Chandler as the occupier of the property. Ms Chandler claimed that Mr Silwood was negligent and breached his duty to take precautions to avoid a risk of harm to herself. Prior to the trial, the parties agreed that if liability was found in favour of the plaintiff then the sum awarded should be $650,000. The main issue left in question was whether or not Mr Silwood was liable.
The trial decision
Her Honour Chief Justice Holmes found that Mr Silwood had breached his duty in failing to take reasonable steps to avoid the foreseeable risk of injury to Ms Chandler. A reasonable person in Mr Silwood’s position would have made sure the stairs were dry, that the light was on or at least have warned Ms Chandler that the steps might be wet so she could have been aware of the risk. In coming to this conclusion, her Honour made the following findings of fact:
- The steps were wet;
- The appellant had made them wet by hosing the front wall above them;
- The steps were slippery when wet if approached at an angle;
- It was entirely predictable that she would approach the steps at an angle;
- The appellant knew the respondent would be using the steps that night;
- The respondent did not turn the front light on to illuminate the steps;
- The respondent had no reason to believe that the steps were wet.
The appellant’s submissions
The appellant appealed against the decision on a number of grounds that are divided into three main areas:
- Reasonable care and the use of hindsight
According to the appellant, he had never had any problems with the steps in the 8 years that he owned the property. He also had not been concerned previously that hosing the area would cause the steps to become slippery. The appellant argued that it was ‘very difficult to conceive how or why’ a person in his position would anticipate that a person would walk up the stairs in another way than square on. Therefore, the trial judge erred in finding that the risk was one that he ought to have known nor was it reasonable for him to be expected to take precautions against such a risk.
- Was the cause of the slip the steps being wet?
The appellant challenged the finding that the respondent fell because the steps were wet. The appellant argued that the steps would only have been slippery if the respondent had stepped longitudinally onto them and not if she stepped square on. The appellant argued that the evidence showed that the respondent had stepped at more of a right angle than longitudinally and therefore no conclusion could be made that she had lost her footing because of the dampness of the step.
- Was the absence of lighting a cause of the accident?
The appellant submitted that the trial judge gave insufficient reasons as to why the absence of lighting gave rise to a real prospect of serious risk or harm occurring to the respondent.
The respondent’s submissions
The respondent argued that all the appellant’s submissions related to the trial judge erring in relation to findings of fact. Therefore in reliance of Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated v McDermott (see our discussion of this decision here) the only way the appellate court could overturn the primary decision was if the findings of the trial judge were demonstrably wrong because they were contrary to ‘incontrovertible facts or uncontested testimony’, or ‘glaringly improbable’, or ‘contrary to compelling interferences’. The respondent submitted that none of the appellants’ arguments pointed to the trial judge’s decision being demonstrably wrong and therefore it was not within the appellate court’s power to overturn the trial judge’s findings of fact.
Decision of the Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal held that the trial judge’s findings of fact were thoroughly explained and well justified. Therefore, the Court agreed with the respondent in finding that this was not an instance where this court could substitute its own different findings of fact. The Court agreed with the Chief Justice Holmes that a reasonable response to the facts in this instance required the appellant to dry the steps, to warn the respondent that the steps were wet, or at least have illuminated the steps so the appellant had the chance of seeing that the steps were wet and might have been able to avoid slipping.
The risk of the respondent slipping was also seen as an foreseeable risk and a reasonable person would have taken these precautions given the significant foreseeability of someone slipping and the ease of which this risk of harm could have been prevented.
Therefore, the law was correctly applied to the facts and the appeal was dismissed.
There is a lesson to be learnt from this regarding residential occupiers and foreseeable risks to their property which could result in injury to visitors. In this case the appellant could have done a number of things to avoid the risk of foreseeable harm that the slippery stair case presented. In failing to take any precautions the occupier was unable to discharge the duty of care he owed to those entering his property and therefore was guilty of negligence.
For more information regarding negligence, please contact our offices for a free consultation with one of our Brisbane personal injury lawyers on (07) 3252 0011, or through our general enquiries page.
  QCA 273.