No Duty of Care in School Swimming Lessons

October 31st, 2011

It remains common in many areas for schoolchildren to be given swimming lessons through their schools as part of the physical education curriculum. However, fewer and fewer schools have the space or facilities to provide swimming lessons on their own premises. The solution, as it has long been, is for schools to take their pupils to the local council-run swimming pool instead.

The claimant in Annie Woodland v The Swimming Teachers’ Association & Others [2011] EWHC 2631 (QB) was a ten year old child who had attended a swimming lesson arranged by her school at a swimming pool run by Basildon DC. Tragically, she suffered a head injury during her lesson and now has serious brain damage.

The claimant, through her father, brought a claim in negligence against a number of bodies, one of whom was Essex CC, the local education authority responsible for the school. Neither the lifeguard on duty nor the people running the swimming lessons were employees of Essex CC. Essex CC accepted that it owed a duty to take the reasonable care that a parent would take, and to reasonably ensure that any contractors would be able to fulfil their duties. It denied the existence of a non-delegable duty of care.

Langstaff J agreed with Essex CC, and held that the imposition of a non-delegable duty was unarguable. Previous authority in analogous situations, such as hospitals, denied the existence of a duty and no policy argument required the imposition of one. The accident did not occur on school premises or under the school’s control. It would involve a considerable expansion of liability beyond the standard of a reasonable parent. The appropriate duty was for Essex CC to take reasonable care that the contractors it hired had laid down safe and proper systems of work for their lifeguards.

In the Woodland case, there was little need to impose the non-delegable duty on the education authority (apart from a relative depth of pockets) where there were a number of other more obviously liable defendants. Whether a case with only the education authority as the defendant recoverable from will suggest a different outcome if liability is floated again remains to be seen.

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