A meat inspector appealed against a finding that he was 40 per cent contributorily negligent. He was inspecting an abattoir owned by the first defendant during the height of the foot and mouth epidemic. He stepped into a plastic tray containing some disinfectant placed between the doorways to prevent the spread of infection. The tray slipped and he fell suffering injuries.

The Judge held that whilst the defendant was negligent , the claimant knew the trays were likely to be a hazard, had reported the hazard on a previous occasion , knew the tray would be likely to move unless full of disinfectant and knew that, when it was empty, it was unstable.

The claimant said the Judge had been wrong in his finding of contributory negligence of 40%.

However, the Court of Appeal held the Judge was correct. The claimant had been well aware of the existence of the tray. One of the claimant’s tasks was to check the levels of disinfectant in the trays and as he knew an empty tray was unstable it was therefore inevitable that there would be a finding of contributory negligence.

The question of apportionment was a matter for the trial Judge and it was only in rare circumstances that the Court of Appeal would interfere. This is not a standard tripping case as one of the claimant’s tasks was to look at the trays and check the levels. While the court might have apportioned blame more favourably towards the claimant, the Judge’s apportionment could not be categorised as wrong.

The comments of the Court of Appeal are interesting in the light of another contributory negligence decision. The claimant tripped over a protruding pallet left by another employee. It protruded into the walkway where she operated a Pitney Bowes machine. The defendants alleged that the cause of the accident was the claimant rushing and they denied that the pallet protruded into the gangway.

The claimant admitted that she saw the protruding pallet before the accident and did not ask for it to be moved or move it herself. The defendants had a witness who said the claimant was in control of the workstation and could direct where pallets were left. The claimant said it was a previous shift worker who allowed the pallets to be left too close to the machine.

The judge found liability in favour of the claimant but assessed contributory negligence at 30 per cent.

Pavement tripper fails

It is not easy these days to win pavement tripping cases. Our client, an 81-year-old, tripped on a paving stone. The Judge was satisfied that he had tripped over the paving stone. But he could not be satisfied that he had tripped on the part of the paving stone that was sunk by over an inch, as the claimant could only say he tripped somewhere along the length and only at one corner of the length.

The slab sank by just over an inch, and about ¾ of the length was sunk by less than an inch. He found that one end of the length was a reasonably foreseeable danger but was not of the view that the whole length was dangerous. He was not satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, the claimant had tripped at the point of the length which could be considered dangerous.

The defendants called evidence of inspections of the paving stone, one of them five months before the accident and another less than two weeks after the accident, both of whom said the defect was not there at the time they saw it.