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Strawberries, cream and occupiers' liability

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With the Wimbledon tournament opening on the 1 July 2019 we have seen the emergence of a new £70 million roof on Court One. Not just creating an impressive appearance to one of the largest courts, this also allows for the games to be sheltered from the disturbance of a downpour. And as well as ensuring the continuity of games should it rain, it will bring a greater level of safety for the competitors on the court.

The relevant legislation is the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 which imposes a duty of care on occupiers (here, the owners of the courts) to do what is reasonable to make the premises reasonably safe for lawful visitors. The grounds are owned by The All England Lawn Tennis Ground plc and so the common duty of care set out in this Act is applicable to them. If a player, a visiting spectator or an employee of the tennis grounds were to be injured there would be a potential claim:- if it can be shown that the occupier failed to take reasonable steps to keep visitors safe for the purposes of their visit;- and the injury must have caused loss or damage. It would also be necessary to show the visitor was there for a permitted purpose. This essential element is clearly satisfied in the case of players participating in Wimbledon, as they are there for the specific reason:- to compete.

Martin Spencer, Debt Recovery Assistant at Roythornes solicitors and British Isles Bowls Champion, highlighted an incident that occurred at a bowls competition where a woman slipped and injured her leg due to the ground being wet after it had rained. This indicates the potential danger of an unsafe playing surface. The new roof on Court One could prevent such an incident happening at Wimbledon. Though not currently forecast to rain this year at the tournament, the unpredictability of English weather means that little reassurance is offered by this and makes the roof an important feature of the court! - particularly as, since 1922, there have only been seven Championships recorded as being without rain interruptions.

Notably it is the referee’s job to decide if a court is fit for play and to decide whether play should be postponed due to weather conditions.  Logically therefore, the referee, along with the umpires, would be involved in the decision to close the roof. The responsibility of the referee was evident in the case of Smolden v. Whitworth (1996), where the referee of a game of rugby was held liable to a player when a scrum collapsed dangerously. The referee could be liable for failure to show reasonable competence, which creates a reasonably foreseeable danger of injury to a player.

It would be surprising if players at Wimbledon required the assistance of personal injury lawyers. Players like all sports competitors, consent to a certain element of risk. The grounds at Wimbledon are kept in excellent condition making any “trip/slip injuries” unlikely. Finally, the same inherent dangers applicable in rugby are not present in tennis.

The unpredictability of the tournament, so far with Venus Williams being knocked out by 15-year-old Coco Gauff, definitely promises an interesting Wimbledon season, hopefully with no pressing legal issues.

By Katie Alexander and Brittney Lindsay