Landmark Decision Upheld: Wollongong City Council v Williams [2021] NSWCA 140

Mar 1, 2024 | Publication

In a significant ruling, the New South Wales Court of Appeal has upheld the decision in the case of Wollongong City Council v Williams [2021] NSWCA 140, marking a pivotal moment in occupiers liability law.

The case centred around a trip and fall incident in a council park, where the plaintiff, a disability worker, accompanied one of his clients to a disabled bathroom. Along the footpath leading to the facility were three single steps, lacking any visual cues or warnings. The plaintiff fell due to the absence of such cues, leading to a legal battle over liability and compensation.

The council appealed the primary liability decision, while the plaintiff cross-appealed regarding contributory negligence findings and the reduction on past economic loss of 10% for vicissitudes.

In a resounding verdict, the appeal was dismissed. Justices McCallum and Simpson concurred with Justice Adamson’s reasoning for dismissing the appeal. However, they allowed the cross-appeal, emphasizing the lack of evidence or findings regarding how the plaintiff failed to take reasonable precautions in the circumstances.

Regarding economic loss, the Court found that the trial judge’s reasoning for applying a 10% reduction for vicissitudes was insufficient, raising questions about the adequacy of the decision.

The crux of the case lay in whether the council adequately fulfilled its duty of care. The Court rejected the council’s argument that the plaintiff’s lack of attention caused the fall, affirming the trial judge’s ruling that the council’s negligence in failing to provide clear cues to the steps was the primary cause.

Moreover, the Court highlighted that the plaintiff’s inability to precisely describe the fall mechanism did not undermine his case. There was a reasonable inference that the absence of cues led to the fall, underscoring the council’s responsibility to ensure the safety of park visitors.

The ruling sets a precedent for premises liability cases, emphasising the duty of care owed by councils and property owners to ensure the safety of visitors, particularly those with disabilities. The decision underscores the importance of clear signage and cues to prevent accidents and holds entities accountable for negligence in maintaining safe premises.

This landmark decision serves as a reminder to all councils and property owners of the critical need to prioritise safety measures, particularly in areas frequented by vulnerable individuals.

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