Case study – the cost of tripping hazards in your practice

Jurisdiction

The patient commenced proceedings against the dentist in the District Court of NSW alleging negligence.

Outcome

The claim was settled.

Law considered

Civil Liability Act 2002 (NSW) – sections 5B, 5C, 5F, 5G and 5H

Facts

The woman attended the dental practice in NSW to enquire about making an appointment. Upon leaving the practice, her foot became entangled in a cord hanging from some window blinds. The cord was lying in the reception area and strewn across the means of egress. The woman sustained injuries to her nose, neck, shoulder and ankle as a result of her fall.

Evidence and issues considered

  1. Was the dentist liable for the fall?

As the occupier of the practice premises, the dentist had a legal duty to take reasonable care for those entering and exiting his premises. This duty included ensuring that the entry/exit to the practice was clear of tripping hazards. The fall was witnessed by an employed dental nurse who confirmed that the women had tripped and fallen after her foot became caught in the blind cord.

Applying the law, a court would consider the foreseeability and severity of the risk posed by the blind cord together with what reasonable steps were open to the dentist to guard against this risk. The cord created a risk of serious injury. Tying the cord up off the floor was a simple and reasonable step the dentist could have taken to prevent this risk. In these circumstances, the dentist was liable for the fall and subsequent injuries.

In reaching a decision to settle the claim, consideration was given to whether it could be argued that the blind cord on the floor represented an obvious risk. If it was an obvious risk, then the law presumes the woman to be aware of that risk. Having regard to all the circumstances we formed the view that the dentist would have difficulty establishing that the tripping hazard was obvious. Consideration was also given to whether it could be argued that the woman contributed to the incident by failing to keep a proper look out. Ultimately, the settlement reflected a compromise that took into account the available defences.

  1. What injuries and damage did the woman suffer as a result of her fall?

Medical evidence confirmed that the woman sustained soft tissue injury to her nose, left ankle and right shoulder. There was no evidence of any fractures or breaks. The soft tissue swelling to the nose resolved and with time so too did the injury to the left ankle but the woman had ongoing pain and restriction of movement in her right shoulder. Future treatment was recommended but there was evidence to suggest that her prognosis was guarded. As a result of her injuries she required assistance with some domestic tasks, and was likely to require such assistance into the future.

The woman was entitled to compensation for the injuries and damage she suffered as a result of her fall. The woman initially sought compensation of around $400,000. The claim ultimately settled for a small fraction of that amount and it was not necessary for the dentist to attend court.

Comment

If you are the occupier of premises, you owe a duty of care to those on your premises. This necessarily includes a duty to provide a safe means of entry and exit. You must take reasonable steps to minimise any foreseeable risks of injury to those who enter your practice. Failure to do so may result in injury for which you could be held legally responsible.