Wheat v E. Lacon & Company Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtHouse of Lords
JudgeViscount Dilhorne,Lord Denning,Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest,Lord Pearce,Lord Pearson
Judgment Date15 Feb 1966
Judgment citation (vLex)[1966] UKHL J0215-2

[1966] UKHL J0215-2

House of Lords

Viscount Dilhorne

Lord Denning

Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest

Lord Pearce

Lord Pearson

Wheat (A.P.) (Widow and Administratrix of the Estate of Walter Wheat Deceased)
and
E. Lacon and Company Limited

Upon Report from the Appellate Committee, to whom was referred the Cause Wheat (A.P.) (Widow and Administratrix of the Estate of Walter Wheat deceased) against E. Lacon and Company Limited, that the Committee had heard Counsel, as well on Monday the 13th, as on Tuesday the 14th, Wednesday the 15th and Thursday the 16th, days of December last, upon the Petition and Appeal of Heather Coral Wheat (Assisted Person) (Widow and Administratrix of the Estate of Walter Wheat deceased), of 13 Days Close, Hatfield, in the County of Hertford, praying. That the matter of the Order set forth in the Schedule thereto, namely, an Order of Her Majesty's Court of Appeal of the 13th of April 1965, might be reviewed before Her Majesty the Queen in Her Court of Parliament, and that the said Order might be reversed, varied or altered, or that the Petitioner might have such other relief in the premises as to Her Majesty the Queen, in Her Court of Parliament, might seem meet; as also upon the Case of E. Lacon and Company Limited, lodged in answer to the said Appeal; and due consideration had this day of what was offered on either side in this Cause:

It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, in the Court of Parliament of Her Majesty the Queen assembled, That the said Order of Her Majesty's Court of Appeal, of the 13th day of April 1965, complained of in the said Appeal, be, and the same is hereby Affirmed, and that the said Petition and Appeal be, and the same is hereby, dismissed this House: And it is further Ordered, That the Costs of the Appellant in this House be taxed in accordance with the provisions of the Third Schedule to the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, as amended by the Legal Aid Act 1960.

Viscount Dilhorne

My Lords,

1

On the 4th September, 1958, at about 9 p.m., Mr. Wheat, the husband of the Appellant, fell while going down the back stairs of a public house called "The Golfer's Arms" at Great Yarmouth. He was found lying on the floor of the vestibule at the bottom of the stairs and shortly thereafter he died. It was a concrete floor covered with linoleum. He had fractured his skull. The surgeon who gave evidence at the inquest said that there was a bruise on the left side of his head three-quarters of the way up the skull which ran from the ear to the base of the skull and that the fracture which underlay this bruise also extended to the base of the skull. He said that there were no other signs of injury to the body.

2

Mr. Wheat, who was 42 years of age, must therefore have fallen in such a way to as land heavily on the left side of his head, so heavily as to cause this fracture of his skull. In the surgeon's opinion if Mr. Wheat had fallen heavily enough, the fall could have been from ground level and he said that the injury was consistent with his having fallen down two or three or even a flight of stairs.

3

On the 19th August, 1960, Mrs. Wheat, his widow, commenced an action against E. Lacon & Co. Ltd., the Respondents to this appeal, and the owners of the public house; Mr. Richardson, the manager of it, and Mrs. Richardson his wife. She claimed as widow of Mr. Wheat and as his administratrix under the Fatal Accidents Acts. 1846-1908, and the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1934, damages in respect of her husband's death by reason of the negligence and breach of duty of the Defendants.

4

The action was heard by Winn J. at Norwich Assizes on the 6th and 7th October, 1964, and he gave judgment for the Defendants. Mrs. Wheat appealed to the Court of Appeal against the finding in the Respondents' favour. She did not appeal against the decision in favour of the other two defendants. The Court of Appeal by a majority (Harman and Diplock L.JJ., Sellers L.J. dissenting) dismissed the appeal; and now Mrs. Wheat appeals to your Lordships.

5

Mr. and Mrs. Wheat had gone with their daughter and Mrs. Wheat's parents to stay at the public house for a week's holiday on the 30th August, 1958, Mrs. Wheat had agreed terms for board and lodging with Mrs. Richardson who was allowed by the Respondents to take summer visitors.

6

On the ground floor of the public house, which was on a corner, there were the usual bars, lounges, etc. On the first floor there were a kitchen and larder, a living room and a sitting room, a bathroom and W.C. and six bedrooms. A door with a glass panel and marked "Private" led from the street into an entrance hall which gave access to a staircase leading to the first floor. That floor was in the shape of a "U" and these stairs, the front stairs, were in the right hand upper part of the "U". On the left hand upper part of the "U" were the back stairs. They led from the first floor to the vestibule from which a door gave access to a yard at the back of the public house. From this yard it was possible, by going through the beer store and another yard to get to the service area behind the bars. There was no direct access from the ground floor to the first floor.

7

On the evening of the 4th September, 1958. Mr. and Mrs. Wheat had been out. They returned about 9 p.m., and went to the first floor. Mr. Wheat then went to get some soft drinks for himself and his family. He had previously said that he thought that it would be much simpler to get to the bars down the back stairs. If he went down the front stairs, he would have to go out into the street and then into a bar from the street.

8

A little later he was found at the bottom of the back stairs. They were steep and narrow. The slope was only a little less than the maximum recommended. The width of each tread was 9 inches. There were 14 stairs and on each side of the staircase there was, as one descended, a wall. The distance between the two walls was 2 ft. 9 ins.: these walls did not go to the bottom of the staircase. The vestibule appears to have been built on to the outside of the main wall of the building and the last two steps of the staircase were in the vestibule. That was wider than the distance between the two walls. The wall on the left side of the vestible as one descends is set back a few inches from the wall which goes along the rest of the staircase. The wall on the right side is set back more. The vestibule is quite small, the distance from the bottom step to the door which was opposite the staircase and which led into the yard being 4 ft. 3 ins.

9

On the left side of the staircase where it was only 2 ft. 9 ins. in width a grooved handrail was fixed. This handrail ended immediately above the third step from the bottom where the staircase entered the vestibule. There was no knob at the end of it.

10

There was nothing to indicate the place where Mr. Wheat's fall began. An Inspector of Police who examined the staircase the next morning, could find no indication of anything which had been struck by Mr. Wheat's head.

11

In the landing which led to the top of the staircase there were two electric lights suspended from the ceiling. One, which was some distance away from the top of the stairs, was by the bathroom. The other was at the top of the stairs. Unfortunately at the time Mr. Wheat met with his accident, the bulb was missing from this light.

12

In the main wall of the building opposite the top of the staircase there was a window, the bottom of which was slightly above the level of the floor of the landing. The top part of the door leading from the vestibule to the yard was of glass. The only illumination of the staircase when Mr. Wheat went down it came from the light by the bathroom and such daylight as there was at that time coming through the window and the glass panel in the door. No light could have come through the window on to the bottom stairs and to the vestibule.

13

Mrs. Wheat said that it was getting quite dark when they returned to the public house. Mr. Hunt, an expert called for the Plaintiff, said that when he had gone down the stairs between 9.30 and 10 p.m., on the night of the 5th October, 1964, with the light at the top of the stairs turned off, he could see the first few treads dimly, but that at the bottom it was quite dark, so dark that he could not see the handrail at the bottom. A Mr. Ginn, a builder's foreman, said that he had been in the bar on the evening of the 4th September, 1958, when Mr. Richardson called him; that they had gone to the door of the vestibule, that they could only open that door a little and that with the aid of a match he had seen Mr. Wheat on the floor of the vestibule. He had then gone round and up the front stairs to the first floor and when he looked down the stairs from the landing, the light at the top of the stairs was out but he was able to see Mr. Wheat and Mrs. Wheat's father at the bottom of the stairs and he could see the staircase, the steps and the handrail.

14

No witness was prepared to say that the staircase itself was dangerous. The only unusual feature was the ending of the handrail immediately above the edge of the third stair so that there was no handrail alongside the bottom two stairs. Mr. Hunt thought that this constituted a danger in that a person's hand could slip off the end of the handrail.

15

Mr. Justice Winn thought that it was a reasonable and probable conclusion that Mr. Wheat fell from the second, third or fourth steps from the bottom "and that he was directly caused so to fall by the fact that his hand, which" (the Judge found) "he had been running down along the rail, came to the end of it and he was no longer supported by any rail". In his judgment it was not necessary to infer that he was leaning heavily upon the rail and fell because the rail was no longer there to support him. In his view he said "It is far more likely that he...

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