Co-authored by Emmanuel Solana, Lawyer
In the recent decision of Minister for Education v Shire of Northam  WADC 42, District Court Judge McCann considered that the use of a particular brand of IKEA chair in an indoor sports hall created a real risk of injury.
The Defendant, the Shire of Northam, owned and operated the Northam Recreation Centre that included an indoor sports hall with a polished wooden floor. In late 2011 the Defendant’s recreation manager, Mr Hassell, purchased 270 IKEA brand Martin chairs for use within the centre.
On 12 June 2013, Ms Pisan, an employee of the Plaintiff, the Minister for Education, was injured at an event held at the recreation centre when a Martin chair she was sitting on spontaneously collapsed. The incident caused her right ankle to become trapped under the seat and as a result she suffered a serious knee injury.
Ms Pisan was entitled to workers’ compensation under the Worker’s Compensation and Injury Management Act 1981 (the Act) and received a sum of money from the Plaintiff.
The Plaintiff then commenced proceedings against the Defendant claiming an indemnity under Section 93(1)(b) of the Act in relation to the injuries suffered by Ms Pisan.
Defects in the Martin chair
Expert evidence provided by a structural engineer in relation to the Martin chair concluded that the chair was ill-designed and ill-suited for use on hard, polished surfaces. The design was such that the base of the chair was susceptible to flex under normal load which, in turn, would cause the fixings in the base of the chair to fail and the seat collapse. This defect was exacerbated on polished, slippery surfaces.
A number of other witnesses were called who testified to the Martin chairs collapsing on other occasions while being used in the sports hall.
His Honour found that the cause for each reported chair collapse that occurred in the sports hall was due to the defect in the Martin chair. He accepted that the defendant had a strict maintenance and inspection system in place in relation to the use of the Martin chair, however that regime did not address the overarching problem which was that these chairs were not suitable for use on polished, slippery floors.
His Honour further found that the continued use of the Martin chairs presented a real risk of injury and that the risk exceeded the burden of eliminating it. He considered that a reasonable occupier in the Defendant’s circumstances would have made the appropriate enquiries and replaced all of the Martin chairs.
His Honour decided in favour of the Plaintiff, particularly that it was entitled to an indemnity from the Defendant in relation to the sum of money the Plaintiff paid to Ms Pisan.
Lessons for Local Government
A local government that owns and operates certain premises should have appropriate processes in place in relation to obtaining furniture that will be used by persons at the premises. In determining whether the furniture is suitable for normal use, consideration should be given to the diversity of patrons who will use the furniture and that the furniture will likely have constant and daily use.
Furthermore, a process should also be in place in circumstances where incidents are reported involving the failure of furniture through normal use at the premises. In those circumstances, the appropriate enquiries must be made to determine whether a real risk of injury exists due to the design of the piece of furniture and its continued use. If the risk does exist, the items should be replaced.
Lessons for employers
If one of your employees has been injured in circumstances where you consider there was negligence by a party other than yourself, make sure your employers’ indemnity insurer is aware, so proceedings can be brought on your behalf in order to secure a contribution or indemnity in respect to your workers’ compensation liability.
The information published in this paper is of a general nature and should not be construed as legal advice. Whilst we aim to provide timely, relevant and accurate information, the law may change and circumstances may differ. You should not therefore act in reliance on it without first obtaining specific legal advice.