Chef who claimed he was injured at work fails in damages claim

A chef who was injured when a wardrobe pole fell on him while he was staying in a lodge provided by his employers at a holiday park where he worked has had an action for damages refused.

Judges in the Inner House of the Court of Session upheld a decision of a sheriff, who ruled that the wardrobe pole was not “work equipment” and the pursuer was “not at work” when the accident happened, nor was he acting in the course of his employment when the incident occurred.

Lord Menzies (pictured), Lord Bracadale and Sheriff Principal Scott QC were not persuaded that the sheriff had fallen into any error of law in making the findings he did.

“Indeed, on the basis of the evidence which he heard we consider that the sheriff was bound to make these findings, and to grant absolvitor in favour of the defenders,” Lord Menzies said.

The court heard that in February 2011 the pursuer Matthew Coia was employed as a chef by the defenders Portavadie Estates at a hotel and lodges they operated at Portavadie Marina, Loch Fyne.

Initially, he stayed in a caravan provided by the defenders – though he was not obliged by his contract of employment to stay in accommodation provided by his employers – but in early January 2011 the pipes in the caravan froze and burst and the defenders agreed to let him stay in one of the lodges which were normally used as accommodation for customers.

As before, payment for the lodge was deducted from his salary, and again, he was not obliged to stay in the defenders’ accommodation.

The pursuer moved all his personal belongings into the lodge, and his girlfriend stayed with him there on occasions, but was made clear to him that that he would have to move out if the defenders had paying customers who wished to occupy the lodge, which they duly did at the beginning of February 2011.

The pursuer had stored some of his personal possessions on a shelf in the lodge wardrobe, within which was a metal pole to hang clothing.

However, the pole was not the correct size and had not been securely fixed in place and in the course of removing his belongings it dislodged and fell and struck the pursuer’s foot, causing him injury.

The pursuer raised an action for damages for personal injuries in Dunoon Sheriff Court based on the alleged breach by the defenders of various statutory duties, but the defenders denied liability and averred that none of the regulations applied. However, in the event of liability being established, parties agreed quantum in the sum of £3,250 by means of joint minute.

In his judgment dated 11 July 2013, the sheriff granted decree of absolvitor after agreeing with the submissions for the defenders. He noted that the lodge was a property made available to the pursuer exclusively to conduct his private life within it and concluded that the pursuer was not an employee acting in the course of his employment when the accident occurred.

The three issues for consideration in the pursuer’s appeal to the Inner House were whether the wardrobe pole which fell and injured the pursuer “work equipment provided by the defenders for use or used by an employee of theirs at work” for the purpose of The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 when the accident happened, whether the pursuer at work when the accident happened, and whether the lodge was a workplace for the purpose of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 when the accident happened.

Counsel for the pursuer and appellant submitted that the sheriff fell into error in finding that the pursuer was not “at work” nor “in a workplace” when the accident happened, and that the pole was not “work equipment”.

It was argued that at the time that the accident happened the appellant was an employee of the defenders and was complying with a lawful instruction given to him by the defenders in their capacity as his employers to clear his possessions from the lodge.

Moreover, the lodge comprised a “workplace” for employees of the defenders and specifically for the appellant himself and there was no evidence led that the lodge comprised “domestic premises”.

Properly understood, the pole in the wardrobe was “work equipment”, it was submitted.

However, the Inner House refused the appeal and affirmed the interlocutors of the sheriff.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Lord Menzies said: “In the particular circumstances of this case we therefore answer the first of the three issues identified…in the negative – the wardrobe pole was not ‘work equipment provided by the defenders for use or used by an employee of theirs at work’ for the purpose of the equipment regulations, when it fell and injured the appellant.

“The appellant was not at work when the accident happened – he was removing his personal possessions from the accommodation which he occupied, but there was nothing in the evidence to establish that he was doing so as a result of an instruction given to him in the course of his employment rather than in the context of his agreement with the defenders that he should be permitted to occupy the lodge on a temporary basis.”

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