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June 22, 2008

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Activities centre absolved of blame for man’s injuries

People who injure themselves after choosing to engage in dangerous physical pursuits may be unable to claim compensation, following a Court of Appeal ruling.

The decision, which could protect the leisure industry from future litigation, overturned an earlier ruling in which a young man was awarded damages for the injuries he sustained when he fell from an indoor climbing wall.

On 12 February 2002, at the Peter Ashley Activity Centre in Portsmouth, Gary Poppleton took part in low-level simulated rock-climbing without ropes. Rules on climbing walls, which were displayed on a board outside the climbing room, included an injunction not to jump off the walls, and not to climb on top of structures. Mr Poppleton did not read these rules, and, after attempting to leap from the back wall to grab hold of a rope bar on an opposite wall, he fell to the thick, safety matting below, landing on his head. He was very badly injured and is now tetraplegic.

On 12 July last year, a deputy High-Court judge found that Mr Poppleton was 75 per cent to blame for his accident, and awarded him proportionate damages. However, he laid 25 per cent of the blame on the Portsmouth Youth Activities Committee, which runs the climbing centre. The committee was found in breach of duty by failing to warn Mr Poppleton that the thick safety matting did not make a climbing wall safe, and posed a “latent danger” by encouraging an unfounded belief that it did. He was satisfied that if Mr Poppleton had been made aware that matting did not render falls entirely safe, he would not have attempted the risky leap.

Three appeal judges have now reversed this decision, absolving the centre of any negligence. Lord Justice May said: “[I]t is to my mind quite obvious that no amount of matting will avoid absolutely the risk of possibly severe injury from an awkward fall, and that the possibility of an awkward fall is an obvious and inherent risk of this kind of climbing. Mr Poppleton’s evidence was that he did not think it was that risky, indicating that he knew that there was a risk.”

He concluded that the law did not require the centre to prevent Mr Poppleton from undertaking the activity, nor to train or supervise him. “If the law required training or supervision in this case, it would equally be required for a multitude of other commonplace leisure activities, which nevertheless carry with them a degree of obvious inherent risk — as, for instance, bathing in the sea.”

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