Best practice in action: Looking after your university estate

AB v Newcastle University

We recently acted for Newcastle University in a claim brought by AB when she slipped on snow and ice on University premises causing an injury to her knee. This case clearly demonstrates the value in policy, procedure and documentation. 

The case

The accident happened on the 26 November 2010 on one of the first days of a lengthy period of inclement weather. Snow had fallen heavily the night before and there had been some further snowfall just before the claimant left work at around 5pm.

The claimant worked for The Natural History Society in a building owned by the University and was leaving by a path leading to the staff car park when she fell.

As the path was used almost entirely by staff it was accepted that the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 would apply and that the University had a duty to do all that was reasonably practicable to keep surfaces free of slipping hazards.

The University - procedures in place

The University estate is extensive, with around 50 hectares of outdoor space to maintain. Many of the spaces are very busy areas. 18,000 students attend the University, there are 5000 employees and the city centre premises (of which this was one) are regularly visited by members of the public. The task of keeping roads and paths safe in poor weather conditions is huge.

The University employs a team of gardeners and grounds staff who are responsible for snow clearance and gritting in bad weather. Where the forecast is poor, some of the team will start as early as 5.30am to treat the main routes before most staff and students arrive on site. All of the team have their own areas of responsibility and complete reports for their supervisors to show the timing of any action taken. Records showed that the path where the claimant fell had been cleared of snow and treated with grit between 9.30am and 10.15am on the morning of her accident.

Due to the early start, the grounds staff finished work at 2pm on that day but the University has other measures in place. For example, grit bins are sited around the University for self help purposes, porters and cleaning staff have small supplies of grit to use around the entrances to their buildings and security staff (who are on site 24 hours a day) will deal also with complaints. Records for the building showed that the porter had carried out some gritting around the main entrance used by members of the public. No further gritting was carried out around the staff entrance but nor had there been any complaints.

The ruling

The claimant argued that this system was not adequate, that grounds staff should have been on hand to carry out gritting after the further snow fall and that barriers or cones could have been used to cordon off dangerous areas.

The Judge found that the systems were adequate and that the University had complied with its duty to do everything reasonably practicable to keep surfaces free of slipping hazards. He found that snow is an obvious and visible hazard so that barriers and cones were unnecessary and, in fact, impractical. He also found that, whilst in an ideal world, there would be 24 hour cover in bad weather, this again was not practical and that staff cannot be expected to treat each area of ground every time there is further snow fall. 

Lessons to be learnt

This case clearly demonstrates the value in policy, procedure and documentation. The University had a well thought out policy and prioritised procedure for dealing with icy conditions, supported by comprehensive documents to show what had actually been done. Following this example of best practise will greatly assist colleges and universities in demonstrating that they have taken appropriate steps to meet their statutory duties.

Author: Joanne Kingsland

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.


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How we can help

Nigel Teasdale

Partner - Head of Motor, Fraud, Costs and Claimant Teams

I am Head of the Motor, Fraud, Costs and Claimant teams at DWF and am responsible for the operational delivery of those teams. My background is in dealing with motor claims, particularly large loss.


Derek Adamson

Partner - Head of Occupational Health and Casualty

I am a leading insurance lawyer involved in cutting edge litigation. My expertise is in policy interpretation arising from mesothelioma claims, environmental litigation, product liability and construction cases, including a wide experience of group litigation cases.

Glyn Jones


I am Head of the Catastrophic Injury team within DWF and also Head of our Leeds Insurance department.