Court of Appeal: Farmer who carried out sub-standard works on his home is liable for visitor’s injury

A woman who lost one eye when the glass panel of a door shattered, and a shard went into her eye, has been awarded €200,000 in the Court of Appeal. The issue before the Court was an assessment of the duty of care owed by an occupier of premises to a visitor where they personally take on the task of carrying out repairs within their own home.

Delivering the unanimous judgment of the three-judge Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine found that the homeowners, as occupiers, were in breach of their obligations under s. 3(2) of the Occupiers Liability Act 1995 and were therefore liable for the woman’s injury.

Background

In June 2007, Ms Elaine Newman, 31, was a visitor at the farmhouse belonging to her partner’s parents – Mr Patrick Cogan and Mrs Marie Cogan – in Devlin, Co Meath.

Ms Newman and her partner, Mr Emmett Cogan, were entering the house through the back door when Emmett tripped and went through the glass panel on the left side of the door ‘with considerable force’.

The Court heard that the ‘glass shattered in an explosive fashion and one of the many glass shards that were thrust into the air went into Ms Newman’s right eye’.

Tragically Ms. Newman lost the vision in her eye and now has an artificial eye.

When Ms Newman sustained her injury, the upper half of the inner door of the back porch contained two glass panels. Over the years these panels had occasionally been broken, and after one such incident, in or about the year 2000 or 2001, Mr Cogan Snr inserted two new patterned glass panels into the door.

The High Court

Prior to the hearing, the parties agreed that in the event of liability being found in favour of Ms Newman the appropriate award of damages would be a sum of €200,000.

Proceedings were brought by Ms Newman founded on a claim that the defendants were liable to her in respect of her injuries because of the duty of care required of them pursuant to the Occupiers Liability Act 1995

The question for the Court was whether the defendants had failed in their duty of care as occupiers of the premises in having glass of the type that caused Ms Newman’s injury in the door when the accident occurred.

The engineers were agreed that the glass in the door at the time was annealed glass, i.e., ordinary domestic glass, which, whilst suitable for use in windows, was unsuitable and dangerous for use in a door because if broken it fractured into shards unlike safety or toughened glass which if broken shattered into smithereens and fell directly to the ground.

The trial judge accepted that the duty of care owed by Mr Cogan Snr to Ms Newman at the time he replaced the glass panels in 2000/2001 was to be assessed in accordance with the test suggested by the English Court of Appeal in Wells v. Cooper [1958] 2 QB 265,

The trial judge held that it could not reasonably be suggested that a householder who elevts to carry out a relatively simple repair could be expected to be familiar with the technical standards in Building Regulations.

To hold the defendant liable, in negligence would be to impose upon the defendants a duty of care which would be artificial; and it could not reasonably be said that the defendant failed in his duty as occupier of this premises, to the plaintiff, to take reasonable care to protect her from dangers on the premises.

Accordingly, by order of the High Court, the trial judge dismissed Ms Newman’s claim for damages for personal injuries.

Court of Appeal

Ms Justice Irvine stated that it was of significance that ‘the duty of care under consideration by the Court of Appeal in Wells, namely, that owed by an invitor to an invitee, is described by the Court in precisely the same terms as that which is stated to govern the relationship between the occupier and the visitor in s. 3(2) of the Occupiers Liability Act 1995’.

Justice Irvine was satisfied that the trial judge made a mistake in his failure to faithfully apply the test as advised in Wells to the evidence.
Mr Cogan Snr’s duty of care as an occupier of the premises when he changed the glass in the door in 2000/2001 was to carry out that task with the level of care and skill to be expected of a reasonably competent tradesman.
If a visitor suffers injury because of a danger caused by the act or omission of the occupier; their liability for such a consequence will be judged against the standard of care that would have been expected of the reasonably competent tradesman asked to carry out the same task.
The uncontested evidence in the High Court was that no reasonably competent tradesman would have used anything other than safety glass – and this was a standard that was not met by Mr Cogan Snr when he undertook the task.
Accordingly, Justice Irvine allowed Ms Newman’s appeal – finding that Mr and Mrs Cogan were in breach of their obligations under s. 3(2) of the Occupiers Liability Act 1995 such that they were liable to Ms Newman who was injured due to the installation of glass that did not comply with the standard of care of a reasonably competent tradesman.
  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News