Student lawyer Joanna Garvey-Smith assesses if the misplacement of a stool could breach workplace health and safety regulations in the case of Robinson v Midland Bank Plc  10 WLUK 748 and asks “If an employee is hurt in a seemingly trivial workplace accident such as tripping over a stool, are they entitled to compensation?”
In Robinson v Midland Bank Plc  10 WLUK 748 (CA), Carolyn Barbara Robinson, the claimant, was a tax specialist using a paper filing system in the offices of Midland Bank Plc (now HSBC). One morning, she set off down a narrow corridor to collect several files from the storage cabinets. On the way there, she saw her colleague, Karen Bond, kneeling on the floor next to a small, round stool. The stools were known as ‘Daleks’ as they resembled the characters in the Dr Who television series, and were commonly used in libraries and bookshops to reach high shelves. The claimant collected the files, piling them up in her arms and holding them steady with her chin as they were in slippery plastic cases. She made her way back to her desk and again saw Ms Bond, who was now at end of an aisle next to the passageway. Ms Bond nodded at Ms Robinson to go first. Unfortunately, the Dalek had been moved and was now directly in Ms Robinson’s path. Unable to see the stool because of the files she was carrying, she tripped over it and was injured.
The claimant took her case to the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court in Portsmouth on 2 December 1999.
What is the Queen’s Bench Division?
There are three High Court Divisions: the Queen’s Bench, the Chancery and the Family Division. The Queen’s Bench is where personal injury claims are usually heard as they handle disputes relating to personal injury, negligence, breach of contract, libel and other torts. Cases are usually heard by a High Court judge or, outside London, a circuit judge.
What is a Tort?
A tort is a civil (rather than a criminal) wrong for which a court can give corrective justice, usually in the form of compensation.
When are Employers liable for Workplace Accidents?
Vicarious liability is when someone is held responsible for the actions or omissions of another person. In this instance, the claimant took her employer to court rather than the employee who caused the injury. To establish vicarious liability in a workplace context, three conditions must be fulfilled:
- The person who commits the tort must be an employee (not, for example, an independent contractor).
- The employee must have committed a tort.
- The tort must have been committed in the course of their employment.
The Queen’s Bench: The Decision
Ms Robinson brought claims against her employer, Midland Bank Plc, for negligence and breach of statutory duty. Section 12(3) of the Workplace Health Safety and Welfare Regulations 1992 states that:
“So far as is reasonably practicable, every floor in a workplace and the surface of every traffic route in a workplace shall be kept free from obstructions and from any article or substance which may cause a person to slip, trip or fall.”
The key question was whether the floor area had been kept as free from obstructions as realistically possible. The judge concluded that it had, and that the claimant was ‘the sole author of her own misfortune’ for not looking where she was going, especially since she had already seen the Dalek on her way into the storage area. The claim was unsuccessful.
The Court of Appeal (Civil Division)
Ms Robinson appealed on the basis that judge had been wrong in saying she had already seen the Dalek before she tripped over it. It had been moved from a place where she knew it was, and where it would not have been in her way, into a position directly blocking the path back to her desk. The Court of Appeal agreed, and found that Ms Bond had accidentally encouraged Ms Robinson into a trap by gesturing her through without saying that she had just put the Dalek there.
In terms of establishing vicarious liability, Ms Bond was indeed an employee. The misplacement of the stool did breach workplace regulations and the accident happened in the normal course of employment. Midland Bank Plc was therefore held responsible for the actions of their employee, Ms Bond, in injuring her fellow employee, Ms Robinson.
The employer was deemed to be vicariously liable for the accident and the claimant was found to be in no way contributorily negligent. The initial decision was overturned and costs and compensation were awarded.
The success of this claim proves that even minor workplace accidents are not too small for compensation to be paid after an injury. It illustrates the importance of keeping working areas as free of obstacles and hazards as “reasonably practicable” and demonstrates the principles of vicarious liability if employers fail to keep the workplace safe in line with Regulation 12(3) of the Workplace Health Safety and Welfare Regulations 1992.
This case also provides guidance for employers on the interpretation of “reasonably practicable”. The Health and Safety Executive form completed after Ms Robinson’s accident stated, “All staff have been advised to look ahead when at the filing racks and to move stool [sic] to one side when finished using it.” This contradicted Midland Bank Plc’s defence that it was not “reasonably practicable” to do anything about the obstruction in question at the time of the accident.
The same employer was, however, able to rely on only doing what was “reasonably practicable” as a defence in Furness v Midland Bank Plc  11 WLUK 326 (CA), when an employee slipped on water on an internal flight of stairs. Dismissing the appeal, the Court held that while it would have been “reasonably practicable” to have issued a warning, water spillages were not a common occurrence and the stairs were for employee use only. The employer was not found to be in breach of Regulation 12(3) despite failing to take the correct safety precautions in this instance.