Off Duty

October 16, 2011


Solicitors Journal (Vol 155 no 38) just published a piece (click here for the full article) Kris and I wrote “Off duty.’ Here are a few excerpts:


The High Court threw a lifeline of common sense to private homeowners in Grimes v Hawkins [2011] EWHC 2004 (QB), reasserting the Court of Appeal’s approach in Poppleton v Trustees of the Portsmouth Youth Activities Committee [2008] EWCA Civ 646 that adults who choose to engage in physical activities which obviously give rise to a degree of unavoidable risk may find that they have no means of recompense if the risk materialises so that they are injured.

The 18-year-old claimant in question was an invited guest to a midnight house party hosted by Ms Katie Hawkins at her parents’ home while they were away for the evening. As well as extensive gardens, the house also contained a heated swimming pool housed in a separate building. Midway into the party, amid the general party atmosphere, Ms Grimes dived into the pool, tragically striking the bottom of the pool with her head, rendering her tetraplegic. She subsequently brought a claim against Ms Hawkins’ father alleging a breach of duty in both common law negligence and under section 2(1) of the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 for allowing her to dive into the pool.


As Mrs Justice Thirlwall DBE acknowledged in her ruling, the difficulty claimants in this area have is that diving into shallow or unknown water is a pursuit which is inherently and obviously dangerous if performed incorrectly (Evans v Kosmar [2007] EWCA Civ 1003). In this instance, the pool was well-maintained, with no hidden dangers and experts acknowledged that it was possible to dive safely within it. Indeed, the claimant herself was an accomplished swimmer with a number of qualifications and, on the night in question, she had surveyed the pool by swimming for approximately 30 minutes. The fact that she consciously dived diagonally towards the deep end only served to emphasise the superfluous nature of any warnings or depth markings, had they been present on the pool house walls.

It is not enough though to argue that we should ensure the primacy of free will for consenting autonomous adults to challenge their own limits. See for instance Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council [2002] UKHL 47 where Lord Hoffman said: “If people want to climb mountains, go hang gliding or swim or dive in ponds or lakes, that is their affair.” The corollary must also follow that participants will not be protected from the consequences of their own actions, no matter how tragic these outcomes might be. As such, Mr Hawkins did not owe a duty to put the pool out of bounds or to prevent the claimant from diving in.


While the outcome for Ms Grimes is tragic, the case reaffirms the protection given to defendants and landowners who might currently be drowning in a sea of negligence or occupiers’ liability claims. Some might call it common sense, others an open and obvious risk, but in the delicate balance between allowing individual autonomy and paternalistically protecting claimants from themselves, liability will generally fall on the party that assumed the responsibility for the activity. Sometimes, though, allowing such freedoms has its own cost.

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