Compensation from slipping on wet steps

If someone slips on wet steps on your property and suffers severe injuries, are you as a residential occupier liable for negligence? According to the Queensland Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Silwood v Chandler[1] you could be.

The Facts

Kayleen Chandler and Clive Silwood were previously in a relationship and at the time were the parents of a two-week-old baby. On 9 September 2008, Ms Chandler contacted Mr Silwood who agreed to look after the baby to allow Ms Chandler to catch up on some sleep.

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 was unaware that earlier that day Mr Silwood had hosed the front wall of his house down after he had noticed some bat droppings. As a result the steps under the wall were wet. 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. She bled profusely having damaged an artery.

Ms Chandler sued Mr Silwood in negligence for breaching his duty to take precautions to avoid a risk of harm to Ms Chandler as the occupier of the property. 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. In coming to this conclusion, her Honour made the following findings of fact:

  1. The steps were wet;
  2. The appellant had made them wet by hosing the front wall above them;
  3. The steps were slippery when wet if approached at an angle;
  4. It was entirely predictable that she would approach the steps at an angle;
  5. The appellant knew the respondent would be using the steps that night;
  6. The respondent did not turn the front light on to illuminate the steps;
  7. The respondent had no reason to believe that the steps were wet.

The appellant’s submissions

The appellant raised a number of grounds of appeal which divided into three main areas:

Reasonable care and the use of hindsight

The appellant submitted that in the 8 years he had owned the property that he had never encountered any problems with the steps and that he had not been concerned previously that hosing the area had caused 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 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 a foreseeable risk and not so insignificant that 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.

Lessons

Residential occupiers should be vigilant in respect of any foreseeable risks on 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.

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