Archive | January 11, 2012

Hobbin v. Vertical Descents Ltd [2011] ScotsCS CSOH_207

January 11, 2012

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The case of Sara Hobbin v. Vertical Descents seems eerily related to Jon’s earlier post on Heli-skiing (http://sportslawnews.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/perspective-and-probability/). Essentially this case concerns a head injury to a novice participant in a 2007 Canyoning activity in the Lake District.

Miss Hobbins (the claimant) and her then partner (Geraint Grace) had aimed to climb Ben Nevis, but wanted another activity to do the day before their climb. After reading an advertising leaflet for Vertical Descents Ltd (the defendants), they settled on Canyoning – “a method of descending canyons, streams, ravines and other water-courses by means of sliding, jumping and scrambling.” [2]. Indeed, Vertical Descents Ltd were an experienced outdoor activity company and had been the first company in Scotland to offer the activity.

After attending a safety briefing and signing a disclaimer form, the participants were given protective clothing (wetsuit, buoyancy aid and helmet) and driven to the easiest of the canyoning routes used by Vertical (Allt Gleann A’chaolis, near Kinlochleven).

The key problem for Miss Hobbin can be traced back to her failure to maintain her footing and balance during the activity. Initially, the Court heard how she was concerned prior to embarking whether her choice of footwear would be suitable (she wanted to wear baseball shoes in order to keep her hiking boots dry prior to the proposed climb the following day). At Vertical’s headquarters though, an instructor confirmed that this would be acceptable as the soft baseball shoe sole would enable them to establish “maximum contact with the surfaces” [7]. Sadly during the activity, this grip did not seem to help her. She became bogged down in marshy ground on the ascent [12], and slipped and fell in the water during the descent [14].

Ultimately the injury occurred when Miss Hobbin declined to make a jump of about 15ft into the water and was making her way down to a lower level to meet up with the rest of the group. As she was descending, she subsequently lost her footing on the rocks and fell, striking the back of her head. After a short period of time, the claimant was then assisted down the hill by her partner and an instructor and taken to hospital for observation.

In the Scottish Outer House, Court of Session, both parties argued that the claim depended on identifying the exact rock that the claimant was standing on, the Court however took a much broader view and focused on two main points:

1)      Whether the claimant should have been allowed to do the activity given that the descent was inherently risky and the claimant had been struggling with the ascent [26]. The Court however saw no reason why the claimant was unable or unwilling to continue the descent and this claim was struck out.

2)      The general credibility and reliability of the evidence as to how the accident occurred [34]. While Miss Hobbins credibility was not in question, the Court felt that her tiredness and inexperience with the topography of the canyon was not as reliable as that of the instructor (Graham Reid), who was well qualified and experienced, had led approx 80-100 canyoning trips [12] and was very familiar with the terrain and layout. As such the claim was dismissed and no liability found.

RISK

What is particularly interesting about this case is the discussion on perception of risk. Encouragingly, the Court relied on the dicta from Scout Association v. Barnes [2010] EWCA 1476 [34] acknowledging that it was not the function of the law to deter normal leisure activities. The Court also noted a number of points emphasising Miss Hobbins’ informed consent about the nature of the activity, in particular that she had:

  • Read Vertical Descent’s description of the activity (website / advertising literature)
  • Read and signed a disclaimer form for the activity which specifically highlighted the risks and nature of the canyoning [8]
  • Been given information by course instructors during a safety briefing and had been given the opportunity to ask questions
  • Been required to wear safety clothing (including a helmet)
  • Observed the site herself when she had reached the top of the ascent
  • Self-evaluated her own competence to perform the activity

Although the Court seemed approving of the claimant’s expert witness (Mr Barton) when he said that “it was the duty of an adventure company to keep risks within a tolerable level”, it did note that it was difficult to determine what constitutes the right measure of tolerance [31]. And while it is obiter in this case, therein lies the key to outdoor and adventure liability – what level of risk is acceptable? Should we have different tolerances for guides and paid clients, to hardy adventurers wishing to challenge their own limits?

As Jon’s last post foreshadowed, what is however difficult to reconcile is the perception that outdoor adventure activity is comparatively harmless:

  • At [4], the Court heard how Vertical’s website stated that “canyoning is a safe, fun and enjoyable activity for people of all ages and levels of fitness”
  • Throughout her evidence, the claimant repeated that she thought that the activity would be safe [31]
  • Mr Barton stated in cross examination that “persons on canyoning ‘taster days’ don’t want to be doing anything more risky than being on the High Street” [32] (although I suppose this depends on which High Street at what time of night!)

As Erin Langworthy’s recent Bungee Jump into the Zambezi River showed, the trouble with probabilities are that sometimes those rare accidents do happen. Is the solution therefore to ensure that consent to outdoor or adventurous activities becomes more akin to medical negligence where every material risk and percentage needs to be disclosed, or is it more akin to rugby – where consent is implied from mere participation in the activity?

The problem is that Leap of the integral of the random variable with respect to its probability measure just doesnt have the same catchy ring to it as ‘Leap of Faith’!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxkY0GGNVMM

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