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Equipment: cases on the meaning of the word

Health and safety: Equipment cases

Employment lawyers based in Clifton, Bristol, have researched the following cases dealing with the meaning of equipment, which it is hoped will be of interest.

Whether “equipment” includes a ship

Coltman v Bibby Tankers Ltd (1987)

The Derbyshire, a ship owned by BT Ltd, sank off the coast of Japan with the loss of all hands. The personal representatives of a crew member brought proceedings against BT Ltd, alleging that the death of the deceased had been caused by defects in the ship, which was “equipment” for the purposes of the Employers’ Liability (Defective Equipment) Act 1969. At first instance, this was accepted by the court. BT Ltd appealed and the appeal was allowed by the Court of Appeal. The personal representatives appealed to the House of Lords.

The Lords made the following points:

  • In the context of the 1969 Act, a ship was part of the equipment of the business owner.
  • The exclusion of the ship from the definition of equipment would produce the absurd position that the employer was liable for injury caused by defective machinery on the ship, but not if caused by anything which could properly be described as part of the ship itself. This would raise almost insoluble problems of demarcation.
  • The purpose of the 1969 Act was manifestly to saddle the employer with liability for defective plant of every sort with which the employee was compelled to work.
  • There was no ground for excluding particular types of chattel merely on the ground of their size or the element upon which they were designed to operate.

Whether a flagstone is “equipment”

Knowles v Liverpool City Council (1993)

K was injured at work when he handled a flagstone which broke. He claimed compensation from his employers.

The Court of Appeal ruled that a flagstone counted as equipment for the purposes of the 1969 Act and the employer was liable. The court preferred the broader interpretation of the wording of the Act. In the present case this meant that the acknowledged purpose of the legislation should be followed. This purpose was to protect employees from falling between two stools in circumstances where, the employer having exercised all proper care and having relied upon a reputable suppler, had nevertheless exposed an employee to dangerous material which was dangerous through the fault of a third party.

The employer’s appeal to the House of Lords was dismissed. The wording of the 1969 Act should be widely construed to include every article of whatever kind supplied by the employer for the purposes of his business.

Wooden packaging equipment

Davison v AR Allen (t/a Allen’s Transport) (1998)

D was a heavy goods driver. He was driving a vehicle loaded with graphite electrodes which had been packed in Japan. The load shifted and the vehicle overturned on a motorway sliproad. D sought to prove that responsibility for this lay with his employer. Neither D nor his employer knew or could have known how the electrodes had been packed or how secure they were.

The county court ruled that the employer was responsible for the following reasons:

  • The wooden packaging around the electrodes was inadequate because of the negligence of an unidentified party.
  • The packaging was “equipment” for the purposes of the 1969 Act because it had been supplied to D for the purpose of his work, to transport the load from one place to another. Without the packaging, D would not have been able to do her job. The equipment was therefore defective.

Fault of third party

Edwards v Butlins Ltd (1998)

E suffered an injury at work when a calorifier exploded. He claimed compensation from his employer under the 1969 Act on the basis that the reason for the explosion had been the fact that a pressure release valve had been screwed down too tightly by an employee of the supplier.

The Scottish court found that there had been an admission by the employer that there was a defect in equipment which had been caused by the fault of a third party. This rendered the employers liable for the third party’s fault.

Angle iron as makeshift tool

Couzens v T McGee & Co Ltd (2009)

In 2003 C, an employee of M, was driving a tipper truck in the course of his employment. A piece of angle iron, which he used as a makeshift tool and kept in the pocket of his driver’s door, caught his trouser leg. He was not able to move his right leg from the accelerator to the brake. He was injured in the resulting accident. At first instance the court found that the angle iron was “equipment”. On appeal to the Court of Appeal by the employer, the appeal was dismissed.

The Court of Appeal held that an item of equipment used at work but not supplied to an employee by the employer was not work equipment unless the employer expressly or impliedly permitted, or was deemed to have permitted, its use. Deemed permission can be inferred where the employer ought to have realised that an item was being used, but apparently did not and therefore did nothing to stop it. On the facts, the angle iron was not “equipment”.

Drinks vending machine

Given v James Watt College (2007)

G was employed by J as a kitchen assistant. In May 2003 she was standing near a drinks vending machine at work when it malfunctioned. The machine started hissing loudly and emitting steam. It then emitted a flash in her direction. She was frightened and fell heavily on the floor, suffering injuries to her right hip and wrist. She claimed compensation from her employer.

The Scottish court found that the machine was provided by the employer for use by canteen employees. It was fully operational and available for use at the material time, and was “equipment”.


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