Quin Abbey staircase fall

VSCG member the Office of Public Works (OPW) was sued by Mr Richard Byrne, an English holidaymaker of Irish descent in his late sixties, following a fall at Quin Abbey. The ruined building is a Franciscan friary dating from the 15th century, situated approximately 9 miles from Ennis in Co. Clare.

Mr Byrne, who was visiting the Abbey with his two daughters, fell when coming down one of the ancient stone staircases, sustaining a serious fracture of the left shoulder, with a further fracture being diagnosed on his return to England.

Evidence was heard from Mr McCooey who ran the Abbey, which has no entrance charge. He combines the functions of manager and guide, providing visitors with a short history of the monument and advising them of the need for care, in particular when negotiating either of the two ancient stone stairways that lead from ground level to the upper portion of the Abbey.

The engineer for the plaintiff argued that the steps were not safe. He stated that sparrow pecking on the particular section of the stone staircase where Mr Byrne fell, some three to six steps from the bottom, was inadequate. He also commented on the features of the rope handrail that was fixed at the side and was used by Mr Byrne in the course of his descent.
The engineer for OPW took a different view. He stated that in the context of an ancient building it would be unrealistic to expect old surfaces to equate to modern building specifications. He accepted that there were portions of the stairway that were somewhat smooth and could have been affected by rainfall, but overall he was of the opinion that the condition of the surface was reasonable as regards to the sparrow pecking that was in place at the time. If the sparrow pecking was to be repeated every 10 years or so, it would gradually erode and weaken the ancient structure.

As regards the rope rail, in relation to which the plaintiffs engineer had expressed the view that there was a potential 8 inches of looseness, the defendant’s engineer said that as Mr Byrne came to the lower part of the staircase, it would have been considerably less, being about 2 inches or so. This would have provided some security in the event of a slip or other cause to fall when descending the staircase.

The judge was clear that the standard of care that was applicable in this case was that which applies in Section 4, Subsection 4 of the Occupiers liability Act which states:

‘Where a structural premises is or has been provided primarily for recreational users, there is owed to such users in respect of the structure, a duty to take reasonable care to maintain the structure in a safe condition’

The judge considered the majority judgement of the Supreme Court in Clancy V Commissioners of Public Works {1992} 2 IR, both in the distinction between considerations attaching to old monuments and modern commercial buildings as regards duty of care owed and in his actual findings made.

He said that it would be wrong if the OPW in its extensive duties as regards national heritage were to be needlessly dissuaded from providing facilities to tourists to attend old edifices such as Quin Abbey, or indeed larger or more grandiose historic premises such as Dublin Castle or Kilkenny Castle, which are fully and professionally administered by considerable numbers of staff, and subject to admission charges.

The judge found that the evidence advanced by the defendant’s engineer was more cogent and persuasive in assessing the duty of care that was owed by the defendant to the plaintiff. Bearing in mind that the weather conditions on the day could not have been considered extreme, that considerable guidance and instruction was furnished by Mr McCooey, that it was made clear to the plaintiff that there was a need to proceed carefully on the particular stairway, as indeed his daughters successfully did before him, and that the defendant is not in a position of insurer against any contingency that may befall tourists attending Quin Abbey, he was satisfied that he had no alternative but to dismiss the claim.

Richard Byrne V Office of Public Works [2012] IEHC1345P

This case law entry was written by Ken Dodd and was published in August 2017

This website entry was last updated on 3 August, 2017

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