Why a Court Ruled Against Climbing Wall in Injury Claim

Before you read on, I would suggest you first read the UKClimbing News item on the matter, and then the Telegraphs piece on the case. As arguably one does not reflect the facts very well.

When I first read of this story on UKClimbing I was in full support of the wall, as someone falling from a bouldering wall is a common thing, and injuries can and do happen regularly, some of which cause breaks and even more serious injuries. As such, as a climber I undertake these activities at my own risk.

You will have to excuse me in this case, as if you actually read the piece in the Telegraph, then a totally different story of exactly what happened becomes apparent. That climber wasn’t in my mind a climber but a student to Craggy Island who was on what was essentially a taster session, which was aimed at team building.

So the difference in that person’s ability to judge risk on a wall, instantly comes into question. As according to the report they had little in the way of a safety briefing on the bouldering wall, something that despite being contested by craggy island the judge felt was not covered well enough to open up the opportunity for the individual to sue the wall.

Now in the past I have done many indoor taster sessions, we are talking probably thousands over the years, and many for a well-known centre in North Wales, where it was drummed into all the instructors the importance of a proper brief and appropriate supervision of both roped climbing and bouldering. It is the appropriate supervision that may well have lead the judge to rule on this, as a beginner should arguably be spotted by someone suitably trained to do so. I say suitably trained, as is it appropriate to have beginners spot beginners, if they have no idea just what you expect them to do, or should the group be trained and brief to spot each other, or should it be the responsibility of the instructor.

My argument would be that it’s a sliding scale of teaching them, and you actively supporting them in spotting, until you are happy that they are OK, and even then keeping a close eye on the group and stepping into assist when the need arises. In order to keep an eye on the group, it is my experience that you simply can’t let the group head off on there own, instead corralling them into smaller sections of the wall, where you can see them all is required.

Louise Pinchbeck, now walks with a limp and cannot participate her favourite sport of running because of an accident that an instructor may well have been able to prevent, or at the very least have suitably briefed the group on the risks of bouldering and falling, as well as employed suitable spotting. These second aspects may well have stopped the incident making it to court.

Sadly, like the judge, I think there was some responsibility that falls on the owner of the wall, for failing to get its supervisor to manage a group of novices that paid for that supervision, in a way that prevented claims of negligence. However it has some important aspects that any indoor instructor should take away and learn from.

1. Bouldering Walls are not a playground, they require as much careful supervision as roped climbing.
2. A proper briefing as to the risk of bouldering is required prior to people engaging in the activity. This should be done as a group so there are witnesses to that briefing.
3. Who should spot beginners, YOU the supervisor or do you think you can train beginners to spot effective? (This peer spotting has been an issue in the Mountain leader qualification for a many years, as if someone or some step needs spotting, it should be the instructor, unless they have ‘trained’ the group in the appropriate skills)
4. Be Insured.

As a freelance mountaineering instructor I am insured against this kind of claim, however an accident doesn’t instantly mean I am negligent. If you use appropriate procedures, and stick to acceptable practice you minimise the risk of becoming found negligent in a court of law. If you fail to do so, then you open yourself up to being sued for negligence.

In this case Craggy Island believed by getting the individual to sign a disclaimer they bypassed any responsibility. However, anybody with any basic legal background (This is often covered in the legal and morall guiduance of qualifications) will know that disclaimers aren’t worth the paper they are written on, especially if sign by a novice. This comes down to the Volenti Non Fit Injuria clause, or a willing volunteer cannot sue for injury. However that volunteer needs to be able to have the experience to make judgements on the risk they are been exposed to, as such a novice cannot make that judgement without prior experience or training to a certain level.

It is why when teaching leading, instructors build people up slowly, and only when they are happy with the client move them onto leading. I have written a piece on my coaching blog about how I deal with briefing a group for lead climbing.

As such I feel that in this case the judge may well have ruled correctly, however terrifying it is to the industry at large, not to mention arguments of increase cost of insurance. This is however my opinion on the information I gathered from the Telegraph’s article, and there are no doubt others out there who might disagree with my thoughts, and others who know more about the incident. I just felt I should write something, as there are learning points for all instructors.

UPDATE – I ripped this off UCK forum – it is a case summary:

In March 2008, the claimant visited an indoor climbing centre, owned and run by the defendant company. The claimant attended, with a number of colleagues, as part of a team building exercise organised by their employer. The claimant did not have any prior rock climbing experience. She and her colleagues completed a two hour session, overseen by two instructors employed by the defendant. For most of the day the claimant was climbing on a high wall with a safety harness. Upon reaching the top of the wall, she would be lowered down by the harness rather than climbing down. For approximately the last ten minutes of the session, the claimant and her colleagues were allowed to use a lower wall. That wall was around 4 metres high and unlike the high wall, had no safety harnesses but instead the floor was covered with crash matting over twelve inches thick. Only one of the instructors was supervising the low wall. On one occasion, the claimant jumped down from the wall, turning in the air as she did so. She landed awkwardly and badly injured her ankle. Whilst waiting for an ambulance to arrive, she accepted that she had apologised for the inconvenience that was being caused. The claimant brought a claim for damages for the injury to her ankle. The instant hearing was concerned with liability only.

The claimant’s case was that no instruction was given for the use of the low wall other than that only two people could be on the wall at the same time. The defendant’s case was that a formal safety briefing was given before anyone began to use the low wall and that that briefing had informed the claimant and her colleagues that they should climb down the wall rather than jumping. The claimant maintained that she had jumped down on a number of occasions previously and had not been told that she should climb down. The defendant’s case was that the claimant had admitted that she had been told not to jump down but have chosen to do so anyway. The principal issues that fell to be determined were: (i) whether the claimant had been told not to jump down from the low wall; (ii) whether a duty of care was owed to the claimant by the defendant; (iii) whether the defendant had been in breach of that duty of care: (iv) whether the defendant could rely on the defence of volenti non fit injuria (volenti); and (v) whether the claimant had contributed to her injury, and, if so, to what extent.

The court ruled:

In the instant case, on the balance of probabilities, no words were said to the claimant or her colleagues that clearly explained there to be a prohibition on jumping down from the low wall. In respect of (ii), the defendant had assumed responsibility for the claimant by providing instructors. In respect of (iii), the defendant had known that the claimant had, to that point, only climbed upwards that day and had therefore known, or ought to have known that she was at a disadvantage on the low wall. By not instructing her not to jump down from the wall, the defendant had failed to discharge its duty of care to the claimant. In respect of (iv), as the risk of injury could and should have been avoided by proper instruction, volenti did not apply. In respect of (v), the claimant could have climbed down or asked for assistance but she had not done so. She had chosen to jump and to turn as she did so. The claimant had been contributorily negligent and the appropriate proportion was 33%.

Judgment on liability would be entered in favour of the claimant, subject to a finding that of 33% contributory negligence.


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