Why English Heritage were liable for a visitor’s injuries and how similar institutions can minimise their risks


Earlier this year, The Court of Appeal upheld the ruling that English Heritage were fifty per cent liable for injuries that a member of the public, Mr Taylor, suffered whilst visiting Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, as they failed ‘…to warn visitors by means of a sign of the danger which gave rise to the accident (read the judgment here). But what does this mean for similar organisations and how can the risk of liability be managed?

First, a bit about the case. Mr Taylor visited the Castle grounds in 2011 with his family; they took ‘Bastion Walk’, which lead to an elevated firing platform.  Mr Taylor left to take better photographs via a steep slope to an informal grass pathway which follows around the top of the outer bastion wall, which unbeknown to him led to a twelve foot drop into a dry moat.  He was found by his family minutes later lying in the dry moat. 

Despite English Heritage providing three warning signs, they were found to be in breach of their duty of care under the Occupier’s Liability Act, Section 2, in that there should have been a warning sign on the artillery platform and close to the informal path (but readable from the platform).

For reasons of causation and contributory negligence, Mr Taylor was found to be fifty per cent liable for his own injuries.  This was largely because he descended the steep slope standing (whereas his wife went sitting down).  However English Heritage were found also to be partly at fault, on the basis that if Mr Taylor had been informed of the sheer drop (for example by a sign) than as a ‘…responsible, rational and methodical’ man then he would not have taken this route (paragraphs 22 and 23 of the judgment).

This decision could lead to an unsightly excess of warning signs at heritage sites, something cautioned by Derek O’Sullivan QC (representing English Heritage in the Court of Appeal).  For those in the heritage sector, thoughts will automatically turn to your visitors and your duty of care.  Old properties can contain narrow spiral staircases, low overhead doors and beams, hidden steps and uneven floors.  Grounds can contain anything from lakes, rivers, cliff-tops, beaches, deer or peacocks.  There is a multitude of risks for the visitors.

It may be wise to review the visitor experience, re-examine health and safety, and reconsider  your risk assessments (particularly in relation to the fabric of the buildings).  Are there adequate warning signs?  If it is not appropriate to put one up, can a member of staff be placed nearby to warn people, or when they arrive?  If there is a narrow, treacherous pathway, can a one-way system be introduced or a warning be given beforehand?  It is also important that all staff are aware of the need to document all accidents at the time to help monitor patterns and frequency of accidents and to use as an aid in changing these risks.

Guidance and assistance can be found from a number of organisations. The Collections Trust cover risk management in general, and the Environmental Visual Assessment is particularly useful.  Heritage Open Days (coordinated by the National Trust), produced a risk assessment fact file, for institutions wishing to be a part of that festival, which is a good thought-provoking tool kit along with a template of a risk assessment form.

This guest post was written by Katherine Moulds, Assistant Collections and Loans Registrar, Royal Museums Greenwich

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