In a decision which underlined that it is not in every case that landowners assume legal responsibility for the safety of their contractors, a tree surgeon who was terribly injured in a 50-foot fall from a dying conker tree has received a judge's 'enormous sympathy' – but has failed in a multi-million-pound compensation claim against the National Trust.
The young man was left permanently confined to a wheelchair by spinal injuries after falling from a badly diseased tree within the grounds of a Trust property. The firm for which he worked had been contracted by the Trust to fell the tree in sections, a task for which he was said not to be adequately qualified.
His lawyers argued that the Trust had failed in its duty to ensure that the firm was capable of performing the job safely and that its workers were adequately insured. However, in dismissing his claim, the Court found that the Trust owed him no such duty of care and had acted reasonably.
Noting that a tree surgeon's life was necessarily hazardous, the Court found that the felling team would have been well aware that the bleeding canker and honey fungus-infected tree posed a risk. The Trust had taken sufficient steps to check the firm’s credentials and had not assumed responsibility for the workmen’s safety.
The Trust warden could not have been expected to supervise the job any more closely than he did. He had regularly visited the site but had seen nothing to indicate that the team were working unsafely. There was nothing to put him on notice that the man was not qualified to carry out the work or that proper insurance was not in place. In those circumstances, it was not 'fair, just and reasonable' to impose a duty of care on the Trust.
The Court concluded, “The claimant suffered a fall which caused him grave injuries. They have radically altered his life and, in addition to the pain and suffering which he must have endured, they will have caused him very substantial financial loss. Anyone who learns of the case must have enormous sympathy for him.
"The Trust, or its insurers, undoubtedly has a deeper pocket than he does. If the question before me was which of the two was best placed to shoulder these losses there could be only one answer. That is not the question which I have to address. The claimant is entitled to compensation from the Trust if, and only if, the Trust owed him a relevant duty of care. I have concluded that it did not.”