Court ruling could set precedent in disputes over assets on private land

A court ruling in favour of a claimant, resulting in the award of £1,000 in damages to a minor who was injured after falling through a Severn Trent Water manhole cover, is likely to set a precedent for disputes on the maintenance of private land, according to law firm Roythornes Solicitors.

Roythornes, who acted on behalf of the child against Severn Trent said “The conclusion of the court ruling in favour of the claimant clearly determines the responsibility of organisations, such as Severn Trent, in the maintenance of its owned entities, such as the manhole cover - regardless of being on public or private land, and is likely to set a precedent for similar cases in the future.”

The solicitor 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.

Roythornes said the case was complicated because “reasonable proof was needed to show that despite the manhole cover being on private land, the liability did not lie with the landowner.

The solicitor said the manhole cover had rotted resulting in the young person falling into the open sewer below. It said Severn Trent promptly admitted responsibility for maintenance of the manhole cover but denied any negligent conduct towards its upkeep.

As the manhole cover was located on private land, Severn Trent claimed that it was the landowner’s responsibility to report any faults or defects said Roystones. It went on: “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.”