What is Occupiers’ Liability and how can you protect yourself against it?

If a visitor on your land or premises falls or injures themselves, what occupiers’ liability might you have?

There are two acts you need to be aware of, Occupiers Liability Act 1957 and Occupiers Liability Act 1984 (“the Acts”). These Acts impose a duty of care on occupiers to both lawful visitors and trespassers respectively. This obligation applies to anyone occupying or having control of the land or premises. It applies to the premises themselves and not an activity being performed on it. It is also worth noting that there may be more than one occupier of the same premises.

A duty of care is owed by the occupier to anyone entering the land in relation to the dangers that are presented because of the state of the land or premises. The occupier must therefore take ‘such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable’ to ensure that third parties will not suffer injury or damage.

It may seem odd that legislation imposes a duty to care to include trespassers, but this ensures, for example that traps are not set up by occupiers against them.

It may be possible for an occupier to discharge their duty by giving a warning of the danger, for example, by erecting warning signs. However, this will only be considered enough to absolve the occupier of liability if in all the circumstances it was enough to enable the visitor to be reasonably safe. This was seen in the recent appeal decision in Edwards v London Borough of Sutton, involving a case where the claimant was pushing a bicycle over a bridge owned and occupied by the defendant. The claimant lost his balance and fell over the edge into the water below, sustaining a serious spinal cord injury as a result. At first instance, the trial judge found that there was a breach of the Occupiers Liability Act 1957. However, this was overturned by the Court of Appeal who found in favour of occupiers, reinforcing that an occupier only has to exercise reasonable care for the safety of any visitors – the duty is not an absolute duty to prevent all accidents.

Whilst this recent decision falls in favour of occupiers and reinforces that they do not have a duty to prevent all accidents and need only exercise reasonable care for the safety of visitors – this judgement should be treated with caution. It is unclear whether this decision will be applied to a wider range of circumstances or be restricted to similar cases.

We would always recommend undertaking regular risk assessments and seeking expert legal advice where necessary.