If you found yourself at the centre of a personal injury claim following an incident at your facility, do you know what evidence you would need to defend the claim?
Christopher Roberts is Outdoor Education Development Officer at Dare Valley Country Park, a busy local authority-owned outdoor education centre in South Wales. Christopher was faced with a public liability claim after an incident at his centre in July 2012. In this interview, he tells us exactly what evidence he was asked to provide, and how he successfully defended the claim.
Could you describe the incident as it happened?
In July 2012 we had a school group of Year 11 students visit us for some team building, canoeing, and mountain biking. Riding back to the centre at the end of the day’s activities, one of the students decided not to listen to the instructor, who had told them to ride slowly along the very narrow path leading back to the centre. The student flew through the gate into the car park and jumped over a large speed ramp. The front wheel of the bike came off in mid-air, the boy went over the handle bars and subsequently hurt himself.
This happened 50 yards from the centre, so I was there straight away. I made an initial assessment and did some first aid checks. I was pretty aware then that there was a possibility of broken collar bone from the pain he described, and administered a sling. The injured student wanted to go home so his parents could take him to the hospital, and the teacher agreed that was the best course of action.
What happened next?
I filled out the incident / accident report. I asked the teacher to let me know when the student had been to the hospital, so I could complete my report and then close the file from this end.
A day or two later I had an email from the teacher, which said: “For your information the pupil who fell off his bike cracked his collar bone. I think he and the others have learned a valuable lesson about the importance of following the guides’ instructions”. So obviously the teacher agreed that the student was riding other than in accordance with what he had been told to do.
I then completed the incident report and passed the incident report on to our internal health and safety department, and as far as I was concerned that was the end of the case. I had fulfilled my roles and responsibilities… until a public liability claim landed on my desk.
What was the allegation made against your centre?
The particulars of the claim in the letter I received stated:
Our client was on a school trip to Dare Valley Country Park. He and his fellow pupils were cycling on bicycles provided by the outdoor activity centre. Our client was provided with a bicycle to ride by a member of staff. On the way back to the centre towards the end of the ride, our client was cycling along a tarmac road within the car park and went over a speed bump. The front wheel of the bicycle came off and our client was thrown over the handlebars, our clients’ accident was witnessed by his colleagues on the ride.
Our client contends that you were at fault because you exposed our client to a hazard and a forseeable risk of injury. Particular allegations of negligence and breach of statutory duty include:
– You provided a bike that was unsafe to use
– You failed to inspect and maintain the bike adequately or indeed at all
– You supplied a bike that you knew, or ought to have known was unsafe to ride
– You failed to take reasonable care of our client
What records were you asked to provide?
The only correspondence I had from that point onwards was with our internal insurance department. They asked me to provide the following:
– Inspection and maintenance records for the bike in questions, for 12 months leading up to the incident
– A copy of the accident report
– A copy of the first aid report
– Inspection and engineering report for the bicycle
– A copy of the report sent to the Health and Safety Executive
– A report of the health and safety department of Rhondda Cynon-Taff Borough Council
– A copy of similar accident records for the previous 12 months
The claimant had personal private insurance which covered him for personal accidents, and it was the insurance company who was coming after us.
Were you able to provide all the necessary records?
I sent all of the above, plus a complete service record for the bike in question. This showed a full check list of all the areas which had been inspected, who had serviced the bike, when it was road tested – all signed and dated. I was able to provide that record going back from the day of the incident, to when we purchased the bike in 2010. The bike was last serviced on the 18/5, and the incident happened on the 30/05. So it was only a week since I had serviced it myself.
I included another list of repairs beside the service, where the bike had had repairs other than what had been done at the point of service. I even produced the mountain bike service schedule that we use, which is a check list that we use when servicing and inspecting the bikes.
I also sent in details of what we call the “M check”, which is a pre-ride check which we carry out as standard operating procedure each time a bike goes out. That had been done the day before – I had no documentation to say it was done other than my declaration, but we have to do that because we have to size the bike for each person going out on an activity.
What happened next?
The insurance company then contended that the service service record I had provided was not necessarily for the bike which had been involved in the accident. I was able to prove that it was, because the bike was uniquely identified by a code engraved into the frame, which matched the service record.
It went on and on. They asked if my guides were suitably qualified, so I had to produce all of their qualifications. The instructor who had taken the boy out on the day was CTC Level 2 mountain bike coach, so that was OK.
They then questioned whether I was qualified to service the bikes as I wasn’t qualified in bike repairs! But by trade I am fully qualified Motor Mechanical Engineer, so they had to accept that I was adequately qualified to service a bike.
It was November 2013 – eighteen months later – when I was finally contacted to say the case was closed and the claimant had been unsuccessful in claiming anything off our insurance.
How do you think things would have been different if you weren’t able to provide such a robust records?
Without those records I wouldn’t have been able to prove anything. If I hadn’t been able to produce those service sheets and accurately identify that it was that particular bike, it would have been a different story. Basically it was my record keeping and paperwork that ensured the claimant was unsuccessful.
Eighteen months is quite a long time to wait – how did you feel while this was hanging over you?
I felt a bit disappointed that the boy had gone down that road and made a claim against us. But to be perfectly honest I always expected that he would have had some money because at the end of the day, he did sustain an injury. But I was pretty confident that they wouldn’t get me on a negligence charge. I had already been studying health and safety for quite a while at that point, and was qualified to IOSH Managing Safely level. I knew about records and how the system worked with regards to negligence claims.
What advice would you give to other centre managers, now you’ve had this experience yourself?
Working for a local authority I knew I had a very good legal team behind me. At no point were they pointing the finger, they were always really great. But I would urge people running smaller outdoor places to keep copies of absolutely everything, it’s so important to keep your record-keeping up-to-date and maintain an accurate paper trail.
Since this incident happened, you have started to use Papertrail’s record keeping system to manage your health and safety records. Has this made things any easier?
Previously we had three or four filing cabinets with a paper record for every piece of equipment. Which meant that every time a piece of equipment needed repairing or quarantining or retiring, we had to go and look through the filing cabinets and obviously and that took a lot of time. We no longer have to do that as everything is online in our Papertrail account.