Public Liability – ‘Reasonably Practicable’ Steps Defined


A recent case (Mann v Northern Electric Distribution Ltd.) highlights the need for the owners of premises that could pose a risk to members of the public to ensure that they have taken all necessary steps to comply with health and safety and other applicable regulations to prevent accidents and resulting claims for damages.

The Court of Appeal considered what is meant by taking ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to prevent the danger of unauthorised access to premises. The case was brought by Paul Mann, who appealed against the dismissal by the county court of his claim for damages for severe personal injury. When he was fifteen years old, Mr Mann had trespassed into an electricity substation, possibly to retrieve a football, with devastating consequences. He suffered burns to over half of his body and had to undergo amputation of his right leg below the knee. Whilst he conceded that his actions had contributed to the accident, he sought damages from Northern Electric Distribution Ltd. (NED), which owned and operated the substation.

In order to reach the exposed bus bar carrying 66,000 volts that caused his injuries, Mr Mann had to scale very high walls that were for the most part laid with anti-climbing devices. Much was made at the original hearing of the fact that the defendant had not applied the anti-climbing device to the top of a buttress protruding from one of the four walls. The substation was, however, located near a council estate and was subject to monthly inspections as it was deemed as being at high risk of unauthorised entry.
NED was required, under the Electricity Supply Regulations 1988 (now superseded), to take action, in so far as it was reasonably practicable, to prevent danger to members of the public. The Court considered what ‘reasonably practicable’ meant in this context. In order for NED to have met its obligations, it would be required to conduct a balancing exercise. On the one hand it would need to consider the likely risk and on the other the measures necessary to avert that risk.
When determining whether or not it was reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk, it was necessary to look at the likelihood of it actually happening. In this case, the issue was whether it was foreseeable that Mr Mann could not only have climbed over the initial railings but also scaled a further wall six feet and eight inches high by using a makeshift ladder that he had created out of three pieces of wood.
The Court found that whilst it was foreseeable that Mr Mann could have climbed over the railings, it was not foreseeable that he could have scaled the second structure. As a result, it was not reasonably practicable for NED to take further steps to prevent a person from climbing this second wall. The appeal was therefore dismissed.
In this case, the important point is that the Court found that NED had met its obligations as regards public safety. However, the standard of care implied by this decision is high. 
If you would like to discuss your public liability risk, contact us for advice.

Share this article