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Child court case raises manhole maintenance questions

A court's ruling in the case of a child who was injured falling into a collapsed manhole cover in Nottingham is likely to have implications for future disputes around the maintenance of water company assets on private land.

Severn Trent has been ordered to pay £1,000 in damages after the child, who cannot be named for legal reasons, suffered injuries when stepping on a manhole cover in Mapperley in February 2014. The manhole cover had rotted away and collapsed, resulting in the young person falling into the open sewer below.

Severn Trent promptly admitted responsibility for maintenance of the manhole cover, which was situated on private land, but denied any negligent conduct towards its upkeep. The water company argued that the landowner was in the best position to know about the existence and condition of the manhole cover, and therefore had responsibility to inspect it and notify the water company of any faults or defects that required repair.

However, the court disagreed and ruled in favour of the claimant, on the grounds that the duty to proactively inspect the assets lay with the water company.

The case was prepared by Roythornes Solicitors while the claimant was represented in court by Philip Godfrey of Ropewalk Chambers.

Cristina Parla, personal injury paralegal at Roythornes Solicitors, said: “This was a complex case as reasonable proof was needed to show that despite the manhole cover being on private land, the liability did not lie with the landowner.

“The crux of the legal argument was whether Severn Trent had reasonable systems of inspection in place. Severn Trent’s primary assertion was that they had responsibility for some 1,650,000 manhole covers across its region and it was too onerous a task to proactively inspect all assets.

“Secondly, by statute, they are entitled to delegate and rely upon the systems of inspection by the private land owners. Severn Trent also put forward an argument that they did not know the locations of all the manhole covers when they were transferred in 2011.

“If an organisation, such as Severn Trent, is to rely upon an external party – in this case, the landowner – to maintain utilities it is clearly accountable for, such as manhole covers, the success of that delegation lives and dies on the merits of the inspection systems of that external party.

“The reactive system which Severn Trent used is inconsistent with the positive duty that it owes to public health and safety.”

The court’s ruling in favour of the claimant is likely to set a precedent that means that utilities with assets on private land are unable to use this as a reason not to exercise due care over their maintenance, Parla added.

“Lessons should be learned from this case. A system hinged on a reactive response as opposed to proactive risk management is not an effective process. It goes without saying that injuries from a fall such as this could be catastrophic and it is fortunate the child was not more seriously injured,” she concluded.

“We are pleased we have been able to secure a positive outcome for the child and its family and hope that this case has highlighted the responsibility and duty of care held by organisations such as Severn Trent on both public and private land.”

Author: James Brockett,
Topic: Sewer Networks
Tags: Legal , maintenance , utilities


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