The outcome of a case where a minor was injured falling into a collapsed manhole cover in Nottingham is likely to set a precedent for future cases regarding disputes on the maintenance of private land.
Acting on behalf of the child, who cannot be named for legal reasons, Cristina Parla of Roythornes Solicitors prepared the case against Severn Trent PLC and the matter proceeded to Court in March 2017.
The child involved suffered injuries after stepping on a manhole cover on Hill View Road in Mapperley in February 2014. The manhole cover had rotted away and collapsed resulting in the young person falling into the open sewer below. Severn Trent promptly admitted responsibility for the maintenance of the manhole cover but denied any negligent conduct towards its upkeep.
Furthermore, as the manhole cover was located on private land, Severn Trent claimed that it was the landowner’s responsibility to report any faults or defects. According to the water company, the landowner is in the best position to know the existence of the manhole cover, take reasonable steps to inspect its condition and notify the company in the event of a required repair.
This was a complex case as reasonable proof was needed to show that despite the manhole cover being on private land, the liability did not lie with the landowner.
The crux of the legal argument was whether Severn Trent had reasonable systems of inspection in place. Severn Trent’s primary assertion was that they had responsibility for some 1,650,000 manhole covers across its region and it was too onerous a task to proactively inspect all assets.
Secondly, by statute, they are entitled to delegate and rely upon the systems of inspection by the private land owners. Severn Trent also put forward an argument that they did not know the locations of all the manhole covers when they were transferred in 2011.
If an organisation, such as Severn Trent, is to rely upon an external party – in this case, the landowner – to maintain utilities it is clearly accountable for, such as manhole covers, the success of that delegation lives and dies on the merits of the inspection systems of that external party.
The reactive system which Severn Trent used is inconsistent with the positive duty that it owes to public health and safety.
At Trial, the claimant was represented by Counsel, Philip Godfrey of Ropewalk Chambers, and the court ruled in favour of the claimant, resulting in £1,000 of damages being awarded.
The conclusion of the court ruling in favour of the claimant clearly determines the responsibility of organisations, such as Severn Trent, in the maintenance of its owned entities, such as the manhole cover - regardless of being on public or private land, and is likely to set a precedent for similar cases in the future.
Lessons should be learned from this case. A system hinged on a reactive response as opposed to proactive risk management is not an effective process. It goes without saying that injuries from a fall such as this could be catastrophic and it is fortunate the child was not more seriously injured.
We are pleased we have been able to secure a positive outcome for the child and its family and hope that this case has highlighted the responsibility and duty of care held by organisations such as Severn Trent on both public and private land.