Court of Appeal overturns €75K in damages awarded to woman who trapped her finger in pub door



A woman who was awarded €75,000 after her finger was severed by a hydraulic door, has had her award overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Ms Justice Irvine found that there was no legal basis for finding that the pub was liable for the woman’s injuries.

Background

In January 2016, Ms Saundra O’Flynn was awarded €75,000 by way of general damages in respect of injuries received by her on the premises of The Oliver Plunkett bar in February 2012.

The High Court judge concluded that in setting the closing speed for an automatic door at other than the slowest possible speed Cherry Hill Inns Limited, trading as The Oliver Plunkett Bar had failed in its duty to protect customers such as Ms O’Flynn from foreseeable injury, which in her case occurred when the ring finger of her left hand became trapped in the hinged recess of that door.

In February 2012, Ms O’Flynn and two of her friends went to enjoy a few drinks in the Oliver Plunkett bar. The Court heard that Ms O’Flynn followed her friends to an outdoor smoking area, and that there was a door separating the bar from the smoking area and this had a hydraulically operated self-closing device.

Ms O’Flynn told the Court that she pulled the door towards her to go through it and having done so put her left hand behind her in a type of impulse reaction to restrain the door she felt would be closing behind her; In doing so the tip of the ring finger of her left hand entered the rebate of the doorframe on the hinged side where it was crushed and then severed by the closing door.

The High Court

In providing evidence to the High Court, the consulting engineer on behalf of Ms O’Flynn explained that the door was intended to close to 30 degrees with a fair degree of speed and thereafter very slowly; and that the mechanism was designed to give the person going through the door the chance to ensure that their fingers did not become caught as the door closed.

From the fact that Ms O’Flynn had not managed to extract her fingers in time to avoid injury, it was proposed that the probable cause of her injury was that the closing mechanism had malfunctioned.

Justice Irvine noted that the engineer did not assert that it was his professional opinion that it was unreasonable or unsafe for the occupier to have set the timing mechanism for the closure of this particular door at 5.5 seconds. Neither did he contend that because of the configuration of the premises that the defendant was under an obligation to set the timer on the door to the maximum closure time of 7 seconds.

The High Court judge concluded that Ms O’Flynn could not be faulted for the instinctive act of putting her hand behind her.

The basis upon which the trial judge found the defendant liable for Ms O’Flynn’s injuries was that he concluded the door should have been calibrated to afford more time to the person passing through to get “free” of the door.

Given that the calibration of the door had proved insufficient to protect Ms O’Flynn, the trial judge found liability against the defendant and that Ms O’Flynn had not been guilty of any contributory negligence.

Court of Appeal

On appeal, it was submitted that the trial judge made no real finding of negligence against the defendant that would have entitled him to award compensation to Ms O’Flynn – there was no evidential basis for the liability finding, that no consideration was given to the evidence of the defendant’s witnesses, and that in circumstances where Ms O’Flynn had admitted putting her hand behind her to restrain a closing door that a finding of substantial contributory negligence was warranted.

The liability of the defendant to Ms O’Flynn was claimed to arise in negligence, and also pursuant to the Occupiers Liability Act 1995. Justice Irvine explained that the duty of care owed by the occupier does not extend to taking all steps as might be necessary to ensure that the visitor will not be injured whilst on their premises.

Bearing in mind the limitations placed on appellate courts as per Hay v. O’Grady  1 I.R. 210; Justice Irvine was not satisfied that there was any evidential basis upon which the trial judge was entitled to make a finding of liability as against the defendant.

Primarily, the claim pursued by Ms O’Flynn was based on the probability that the closing mechanism on the door was not working. The trial judge clearly rejected this claim, accepting that the door was not malfunctioning on the night in question – and accepted the evidence of the defendant that the timing mechanism had been set to 5.5 seconds.

Furthermore, no expert evidence was called to establish that the defendant had failed in its obligation to Ms O’Flynn by failing to provide her with more than 5.5 seconds to pass through the door and its hinge.

There was no evidence entitling the High Court judge to find that the defendant had failed to use reasonable care when it did not set the timer to the slowest possible speed of 7 seconds.

Contributory negligence

Notwithstanding the setting aside of the High Court’s finding of liability, Justice Irvine went on to consider the issue of Ms O’Flynn’s contributory negligence. Criticising the finding that Ms O’Flynn had not contributed to her own misfortune, Justice Irvine said that the risk of injury from closing doors was a warning taught ‘from infancy’, and that to propose that an adult was blameless on the facts of the present case was untenable.

Allowing the appeal, Justice Irvine concluded that there was no basis upon which the High Court judge was lawfully entitled to conclude that the defendant had any responsibility for Ms O’Flynn’s injury.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News