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Charity Must Pay Damages Following Hostel Resident's Window Fall

Those who invite visitors onto their property are obliged to take steps to keep them reasonably safe. As the case of a troubled woman who fell from a hostel window showed, even charities are not exempt from that fundamental duty.

The middle-aged woman led a chaotic lifestyle and had a long history of substance addiction and mental health difficulties. One of her legs had been amputated below the knee and she used a wheelchair. She was staying in a hostel run by a charity that provided short- and medium-stay accommodation to vulnerable adults.

Passers-by witnessed her hanging by her fingertips from the window sill of her room on the hostel's fourth floor. She was heard to call desperately for help before falling onto a first-floor ledge, sustaining serious injuries. She sought compensation from the charity on the basis that it had breached the duty it owed her under the Occupiers Liability Act 1984 as a lawful visitor to the hostel.

Upholding her claim, the High Court rejected the charity's case that she had climbed out of the window with the intention of taking her own life before swiftly changing her mind. The window was a very short distance from the floor of her room and her fall was more likely to have been accidental. The reason for her presence on the window sill remained unclear, but the retrieving or putting out of her washing to dry was probably a factor in the incident.

Restrictors that were supposed to prevent the window from being opened by more than 10 centimetres were ineffective and easily overcome. Given the unpredictable behaviour of many of the hostel's residents, particularly when intoxicated, that gave rise to an obvious danger. The charity had probably known of the problem with the restrictors for a considerable period but had taken a blinkered approach to the foreseeable risk.

Simple and straightforward steps could have been taken to eliminate that risk, at relatively low cost. The duty to ensure the reasonable safety of the accommodation was not so burdensome or onerous as to curtail the charity's performance of its important role in giving vulnerable people rooves over their heads.

Noting that the woman had become voluntarily intoxicated prior to her fall, the Court found that she was 35 per cent responsible for the accident. The remaining 65 per cent of blame, however, fell upon the charity. The amount of her compensation would be assessed at a further hearing, if not agreed.

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