In a recent decision handed down by the High Court, Yau Tsz Hin v. Broadway Theatre Company Limited, HCPI 674 of 2010, the cinema successfully defended a 'slip and fall' claim lodged by its patron. The conduct of the defence focussed on the cinema having in place an adequate cleaning and inspection system. The High Court accepted this and held that the cinema had discharged its reasonable duty of care owed to its visitors.
The plaintiff was one of the cinema's patrons. It was her case that she slipped and fell down a flight of stairs as she was making her way back down to the theatre after visiting the lavatory. The plaintiff alleged the steps of the stairs were rendered wet and slippery by the soles of her shoes after she had treaded across the wet lavatory floor. She also alleged the staircase was insufficiently lit.
In order to establish that the cinema had discharged its duty by reason of its adequate cleaning and inspection system, the cinema put forward evidence that it:
a. engaged a competent cleaning contractor;
b. ensured the toilet was cleaned at regular intervals;
c. assigned staff to patrol the stairs every 20 minutes; and
d. kept the staircase adequately lit.
Despite the fact that the cleaning records could no longer be retrieved, item (b) was covered by oral evidence given by a member of the cleaning staff employed by the cinema's contractor.
Similarly, although there were no records directly relevant to the patrolling of the flight of stairs, item (c) was established by the fact that (i) inspections were conducted at timely intervals (against illegal filming etc.) at each theatre and (ii) the staff would have to pass-by the relevant flight of stairs when conducting these inspections due to the configuration of the cinema.
The High Court accepted the cinema's evidence entirely and dismissed the plaintiff's case for want of liability.
The Court held that the cinema had discharged its duties as occupier to take reasonable care to see that the lavatory floor and steps were kept reasonably safe and free from accumulation of water. In particular, the court took the view that it is not reasonable to expect the cinema to station cleaning staff at each lavatory to mop up any water as soon as it may appear on the floor.
As a side note, although it is not disputed that a mat was placed outside the toilet after the alleged accident, the High Court held that "the fact that a mat was subsequently installed does not mean there was negligence before arising from its absence".
Conclusion and takeaway
This Judgment reinforces the legal position that the standard of care owed by an occupier to its visitor is ultimately a reasonable one. It would not be assumed that the mere occurrence of a 'slip and fall' accident means that liability on the part of the occupier should automatically be inferred.
From a practical point of view, the takeaway is that although the preservation of contemporaneous evidence, i.e., cleaning and patrol records, is important, a successful defence is also dependent on reliable oral evidence.