Court of Appeal: €110,000 award overturned for employee who slipped on steps at work



Killian Flood BL
Killian Flood BL

The Court of Appeal has allowed an appeal against a personal injuries award for a man who slipped and fell down set of steps at work.

The plaintiff, Mr Terry Morgan, has been awarded €110,000 in the High Court for the accident. However, on Friday, the three-judge panel overturned the decision and left the plaintiff with nothing.

In making the decision, the court said that the plaintiff had failed to prove his case as it was pleaded in the personal injury summons. Mr Morgan had pleaded that he slipped on water that had fallen from an overhead leak and this was not proven by evidence at the trial, the court said.

In a separate judgment, the court also noted that the plaintiff’s case had been pleaded in unacceptably general terms and said that lawyers need to provide more details of negligence when drafting personal injuries proceedings.

Background

The plaintiff worked with the Electricity Supply Board in Dundalk as a network technician for over 30 years. On the day of the accident, he was collecting post and, with his hands full, went down a staircase in the office. As he made his way down the stairs, Mr Morgan slipped and fell forward. He said he was winded and dazed from the fall. After a few moments, he went back up the stairs and claimed that he saw a pool of water on the landing area where he had slipped. The water was coming from a leaking skylight overhead, the plaintiff said. He then cleaned up the water. The plaintiff later developed pain in his back and went home early. Mr Morgan was out of work for the next four months due to ongoing pain.

In a subsequent investigation by ESB, it was noted that Mr Morgan had not used the handrail (due to his hands being full) as was signposted in the office. Further, Mr Morgan did not say that he saw water leaking from the skylight and suggested that he had slipped on rust-coloured water or coffee.

When Mr Morgan pursued the ESB for personal injury damages, the only specific pleading was that water was on the stairs due to the leaky skylight. When cross-examined about why he did not report this to the internal ESB investigators, Mr Morgan could not provide an explanation. There was also a late additional claim that the nosing of the stairs was worn and contributed to the accident.

In the High Court, Ms Justice Bronagh O’Hanlon awarded €110,000 to the plaintiff. She held that the defendant was negligent for allowing liquid to accrue on the stairs and for allowing the nosing of the stairs to become worn. The judge also held that the plaintiff had not been given proper training in how to safely move post around the office.

Court of Appeal

Giving the principal judgment of the court, Mr Justice Seamus Noonan determined that the trial judge was wrong to award damages in the case. The court said that, on the basis of the pleadings, the only issue in the case was whether the plaintiff had established that the leaking skylight caused the water to be on the stairs. The plaintiff’s engineer was not in a position to say that there was a leak in the skylight, while the defendant had strong evidence that there had been no leak since 1995.

The plaintiff’s case was also “significantly undermined” by other factors, including that he failed to say to his employer that the leaky skylight was the cause of the spillage despite several opportunities in the months following the accident. Equally, the failure by the plaintiff to report the leak meant that he had, on his account, left others at the peril of the hazard. This made no sense, particularly as Mr Morgan said he cleaned up the liquid at the time.

On this basis, the court said that the plaintiff failed to establish that the skylight was leaking and that this disposed of the case. However, the court also said that there was simply no credible evidence before the High Court to say that the nosing of the steps was responsible for the accident in any way. Further, the court said that the training of the plaintiff was never a properly pleaded issue in the case. The plaintiffs also failed to convey the evidence to support a failure in training in their S.I 391 disclosure. As such, the court allowed the appeal and dismissed the plaintiff’s case.

Additional comments by Mr Justice Collins

In a further written judgment, Mr Justice Maurice Collins noted that personal injuries cases must be pleaded with specificity as to the facts and full particulars of any alleged negligence under the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. The court said that the plaintiff’s summons could be held up as an example of the sort of pleadings which the 2004 Act “intended to consign to history”. The particulars of negligence were in “boilerplate form, expressed in such generic terms as to be utterly uninformative”. The court said that a plaintiff could not “rely on the pleading equivalent of the Trojan Horse, which can as needed spring open at trial and disgorge a host of new and/or reformulated claims”.

Further, the court noted that the trial judge was wrong to say that she did not need to resolve the issue of how water came to be on the stairs. On the contrary, the resolution of this issue was essential to the pleaded case by the plaintiff. On the basis that the plaintiff failed to establish this fact, the plaintiff’s case should have failed.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and dismissed the plaintiff’s case.

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2021



Other judgments by Mr Justice Seamus Noonan

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