11th March 2016

Daleks – a Danger in the Workplace?

Most people would agree that Daleks are dangerous things to have around. Their psychotic hatred of anything that isn’t another Dalek rules them off most people’s Xmas party lists, and you certainly wouldn’t want them in the workplace, not even in the HR department, where exterminations are sometimes necessary.

But actually, most people are being unfair, as the recently decided case of Gilchrist v Asda Stores Ltd shows. In this case a Dalek was wrongly blamed for causing an injury when it turned out that, all along, it was only trying to help.

In December 2013 Mrs Gilchrist was working at Asda. She is quite a short lady, and was unable to reach up high enough to hang some clothes on hangers about seven feet off the ground. So she went to fetch a Dalek, and having got one, stood on top of it.

Now, at this stage it should probably be explained that the Dalek in question was not an ultra-violent fiend housed in a metal casing, but an altogether more docile beast – an 18-inch high moveable stool with one step in the middle and a round flat surface on top. It and others like it are used by Asda employees to stand on when reaching up to high shelves. They are called “Daleks” because they bear a startling resemblance to their nastier cousins. Mrs Gilchrist reached upwards and hung the articles she was carrying from the hooks, and then prepared to step down from the stool. As she did so, she felt that she caught her foot or in some way lost her footing, and fell backwards to the ground. She was injured in the fall.

In court, Mrs Gilchrist argued that in providing her only with a Dalek, Asda had not taken reasonable are for her safety. She had needed to carry a pile of clothing in her arms, and, once on the Dalek, reach forward to hang them up. There was an obvious risk of her over-reaching and losing her balance. When she did overbalance there was no handrail for her to grab onto. She ought to have been given airport-style steps with handrails. She said that Asda ought to have known of the risk of overbalancing. Apparently airport-style steps were available but nobody had told her. She had thought that the Dalek was the only thing she could use. It was inadequate and unsafe because of the risks of over-reaching and overbalancing, so Asda, she said, were to blame.

Mrs Gilchrist’s legal team put all their arguments forcefully and in detail. Unfortunately, Asda’s team were quick to see the flaw in it. It might well be, they said, that if Mrs Gilchrist had over-reached when hanging up the clothes and overbalanced, she would have had a case. But that is not what happened. Her evidence was that she had finished hanging up the clothes and was trying to step down off the Dalek when she fell. As to why she fell, it was nothing to do with overbalancing, but was caused by her losing her footing for some unknown reason. Accordingly, the Dalek didn’t cause the accident. The judge agreed, and Mrs Gilchrist lost her case.

This case tells us three things. Firstly, it shows the difficulties and disasters which can arise when a change has to be made in the claimant’s position.   In this case the original position was that Mrs Gilchrist overbalanced while hanging up the clothes, but this changed very shortly before the trial. A decision appears to have been made to soldier on, but from that point the case was probably hopeless.

Secondly, it also shows that there is still such a thing as an accident for which no-one is to blame, and it is not correct to say, as many do, that the courts award compensation against employers for any kind of accident in the workplace nowadays.

And thirdly? Simply that just because a Dalek is nearby when someone gets hurt, it doesn’t mean the Dalek did it.

Richard Godden
Partner – Dispute Resolution/Personal Injury
@The_PIMan
www.blackadders.co.uk

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