Employers liability law update: Catherine Rooney v Western Education and Library Board [2015] NIQB 87

26 May 2016

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Over the past number of years it has become more and more difficult for employers to discharge their duties in terms of providing a safe work environment for their employees.  The balance seems to have swung firmly towards employees and the recent decision of Deeny J in the case of Catherine Rooney v Western Education and Library Board [2015] NIQB 87 reinforces that view. 

Circumstances of case

The Plaintiff was a canteen assistant at a primary school employed by the Western Education and Library Board.  She had worked there for approximately 7 years at the time of the accident.  She was drying a mug in the kitchen on 11 March 2011 when the handle came off the mug and sliced open her wrist.  She suffered a serious laceration.  The facts of the case were accepted by both parties and the case turned on the application of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999 (“The Regulations”). 

The Plaintiff did not attempt to establish negligence against the Defendant.  The Plaintiff submitted that the cup constituted work equipment as defined by Regulation 2 of the Regulations.  The Plaintiff further submitted that if this was accepted then Regulation 5 which states all work equipment must be kept in good repair and efficient working order would also apply.  Both parties accepted that although the employer had not originally provided the cup it had become part of the “generally used stock in the canteen kitchen”. 

The Defendant’s case was that the cup did not constitute work equipment.  The Defendant highlighted that there had been a list in previous regulations (but not the 1999 regulations) and this had not included cups.  The Defendant also cited the dissenting judgments of Lord Hope and Baroness Hale in Smith v Northamptonshire County Council [2009] UKHL 27.  In this case the Plaintiff had an accident on a ramp at the home of a patient she was visiting as a carer.  It was not on the Council’s premises and had not been installed by the Council.  In this case the ramp had been deemed to be work equipment but the Plaintiff’s case had been dismissed on the grounds that it had not been provided for use at work under Regulation 3(2) of the Regulations.   

Decision

Deeny J held that the cup did constitute work equipment for the purposes of the Regulations.  He also held that the equipment had been provided for use at work under regulation 3(2) of the Regulations.  He distinguished the case from Smith v Northamptonshire County Council.  Accordingly, he found the Defendant liable for the injury sustained by the Plaintiff.  The Plaintiff was awarded £25,000 in addition to her special damages claim and the amount repayable to the Compensation Recovery Unit. 

Commentary

This case broadens the definition of work equipment for the purpose of the Regulations.  Going forward, it would seem that almost any object or machinery used regularly by an employee in the course of their work could be deemed to be work equipment.  This brings with it a difficulty for employers in that they are strictly liable for any defective equipment under the Regulations.  This case highlights the importance of inspecting and maintaining even mundane equipment thoroughly and regularly and keeping a written record of these inspections. 

If you require any further information please contact John McCloskey or another member of our Defence Insurance Litigation team. 

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