Comment: Dalek claim has some useful lessons for lawyers

The compensation claim involved a very different kind of Dalek. Picture: TSPL
The compensation claim involved a very different kind of Dalek. Picture: TSPL
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ALTHOUGH it isn’t always about Doctor Who, writes Richard Godden

Most people would agree that Daleks are ­dangerous things to have around. Their psychotic hatred of anything that isn’t another Dalek rules them off most people’s social invitation lists, and you wouldn’t want them in the workplace.

However, such a view would be unfair, as the recently-decided claim for compensation of Gilchrist v Asda Stores Ltd shows.

In December 2013, an ASDA employee, Mrs Gilchrist, was working at the company’s branch at Coatbridge, Lanarkshire. She is quite a short lady and was unable to reach high enough to put clothes on hangers about seven feet off the ground. So Mrs Gilchrist went to fetch a Dalek, and having got one, stood on top of it.

It should be explained that the Dalek in question was not the type associated with Doctor Who. This was an altogether more docile beast; an 18-inch high moveable stool with one step in the middle and a round flat surface on top. They are called Daleks because they bear a startling resemblance to their nastier cousins.

Mrs Gilchrist reached upwards to hang the articles from a number of hooks. She then prepared to step down from the stool but in doing so lost her footing and fell backwards on to the ground, sustaining an injury.

In court, Mrs Gilchrist argued that in providing her only with a Dalek, Asda had not taken reasonable care for her safety. She had needed to ­carry a pile of clothing in her arms, and, once on the Dalek, reach ­forward to hang them up. There was an obvious risk of her over-reaching and losing her balance. Then, when she did overbalance, there was no handrail for her to grab onto.

Mrs Gilchrist argued she ought to have been given airport-style steps with a handrail and that Asda ought to have known of the risk of overbalancing. Apparently, airport-style steps were available but nobody had told her. She thought the Dalek was the only piece of equipment available. It was inadequate and unsafe because of the risks of over-reaching and overbalancing, so Asda, she said, were to blame for the injury.

Asda’s legal representatives argued if Mrs Gilchrist had over-reached when hanging up the clothes and overbalanced, she might have had a case. But her evidence was that she had finished hanging up the clothes and was trying to step off the Dalek when she fell. Why she fell was unclear. It had nothing to do with overbalancing, but was caused by her losing her footing for some unknown reason.

Accordingly, the Dalek didn’t cause the ­accident. The judge agreed, and Mrs Gilchrist lost her case.

This case tells us three useful things; firstly, the difficulties which can arise when a change has to be made in the claimant’s position. In this case the original position was that Mrs G­ilchrist overbalanced while hanging up the clothes, but this changed very shortly before the trial. 

Secondly, it also shows that even in the highly-litigious 21st century, there can still be an accident for which no one is specifically to blame. This highlights the risk of believing, as many claimants do, that the courts almost always award compensation for any kind of accident in the workplace.

And thirdly, just because a Dalek happened to be nearby when someone got hurt, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Dalek did it.

• Richard Godden is a partner with Blackadders.