College awaits pool accident liability ruling

Roger Pearson reports on how a college's responsibility to protect its students could shape future occupiers' liability litigation.

Judgment is pending in a Court of Appeal case which could produce new guidelines in respect of occupiers' liability.

The case involves a challenge to a High Court ruling in which Harper Adams Agricultural College in Shropshire was found partly responsible for an accident in which a student was left paralysed after diving into the college swimming pool.

The pool had been locked, but 19 year-old Luke Ratcliffe and two others scaled a six foot boundary wall following a drinking session. Ratcliffe's injuries were sustained when he dived in and hit the pool floor. He was left a tetraplegic, confined to a wheelchair and in need of constant care.

In the High Court, Judge Brunning held that under the provisions of the Occupiers Liability Act 1984, the college was 60 per cent to blame, while the remaining 40 per cent of responsibility was attributed to Ratcliffe.

In the High Court, Anthony Goldstaub QC for the college argued that the finding that the college was liable for the injuries to a student who had been trespassing at the time of the accident was "unprecedented". He claimed that the damages claim should have been dismissed in its entirety.

For Ratcliffe it was argued before Lords Justices Stuart-Smith, Thorpe and Mummery, who have reserved judgment, that the pool constituted a dangerous trap for anyone diving into it. Ratcliffe's counsel, Richard Lissack QC, claimed the pool, built in the 1960s, did not meet any of the safety standards prevailing in 1994.

He also claimed that the culture at the college was "very beery" and was known to include late night trips to the pool after drinking sessions.

He claimed the practice was common and that when it was seen it was not reported or stopped by the security guards. While the college knew it was the sort of conduct that could be dangerous, it permitted it to continue, it was argued.

Although Ratcliffe has always accepted his portion of the blame, the college's governors are appealing against the decision, saying that they should bear no blame for the accident.