Court success: no duty to erect railings at heritage quayside

  • The partner of a cyclist who died after falling off his bike into a harbour made a claim against the local authority
  • She alleged signs warning cyclists of the danger should have been clearer, and that the authority should have installed safety railings
  • Rejecting the claim, the judge decided the signage was adequate, and that railings were unnecessary

In 2013, a cyclist on his way to work in Bristol died after losing control of his bike while riding close to the edge of a harbour and falling into the water.

An inquest the following year recorded a verdict of accidental death.

The cyclist’s partner brought a claim against Bristol City Council, on behalf of herself and his dependants, on the basis that the council should have installed edge protection and that existing signage warning against cycling should have been clearer.

The accident happened outside the M Shed industrial museum, which is part of the City Docks Conservation Area. Outside the M Shed, on Princes Wharf, are a series of rail tracks used for electrically powered cranes and the Bristol Harbour Railway. It is a working heritage wharf, and when in use, the cranes move up and down the tracks, in addition to passengers embarking and disembarking boats.

For many years, there have been concerns about cyclists trapping their wheels or slipping on the rails. Several signs had been put up to warn cyclists of the danger of the rails.

Within Bristol City Council, there had been a significant debate for many years as to whether railings should be erected along the edge of the quayside. Strong views on both sides were expressed by health and safety advisors, museum staff and local heritage groups.

The objections to railings were essentially that they could increase risks to workers mooring boats, that they could draw young people to the edge and that they would not be in keeping with the heritage environment of the area.

Moreover, while cyclists did catch their wheels in the tracks, there was only one known incident of a cyclist falling into the harbour, with no injury sustained.

We defended the claim on the basis that there was adequate signage to warn cyclists of the danger of the rails, a designated cycle route had been put in place to take cyclists around the back of the M Shed away from the quayside, and there was no duty to put up railings under the Occupier’s Liability Act as the risks were very low and the danger was obvious.

The decision

On 19 October 2018, a judge at the High Court ruled in favour of the council. He considered the signage was adequate to alert cyclists to the risk of the rails.

The signage also clearly directed cyclists away from the quayside and the claimant had made the choice to cycle along the Princes Wharf, close to the edge.

While the council had not put in place warnings about the unprotected drop, the judge considered the risk was obvious. The quayside was 14.5m wide and a reasonable cyclist would be aware of the drop and could choose to cycle away from the edge. The judge also ruled there was no duty to erect barriers where the risk was very low and where barriers would have created other risks.

He also accepted our argument that the type of heritage rails which might have been installed, would not in fact have prevented the claimant from toppling over into the water anyway.

Finally, he noted that there is a public utility in preserving the dockside heritage, and while this should not serve to distort health and safety, preserving the historical character of a heritage area is important.

Commentary

Few cases deal with the extent of an occupier’s duty at a designated heritage site.

The High Court has provided a commonsense judgment which should reassure local authorities and others responsible for heritage areas that incorporate obvious dangers.