Court win for family over school swimming accident

Annie Woodland set for multi-million-pound payment

Updated: 
Annie Woodland

A woman who nearly drowned during a school swimming lesson when she was ten is set to win as much as £3 million in compensation.

Annie Woodland, 24, was left brain damaged by the incident, which took place at the Gloucester Park Pool in Basildon, Essex in 2000. She will need care for the rest of her life.

The family has now successfully sued Essex County Council for negligence - the first time in British legal history that a local authority has been held responsible for injury to a pupil while that pupil was being supervised by a contractor.

In this case, both the lifeguard, Debbie Maxwell, and swimming teacher Paula Burlinson were employed by contractor Direct Swimming Services. Both, said Mr Justice Blake, failed to notice that Miss Woodland was in trouble in time.

"The stark fact is that this was not noticed by Ms Burlinson, who was apparently teaching her group only a few feet away, or by Ms Maxwell who was on lifeguard duty that day," he said, according to the Blackpool Gazette.

"I find both Debbie Maxwell and Paula Burlinson were negligent and, as a consequence, the council is liable for their negligence."

The decision reverses a previous ruling which held that a victory for the family would risk a "chilling effect" on schools, making them reluctant to offer outside activities for pupils.

But a Supreme Court judgement in 2013 overturned this ruling, paving the way for this week's High Court hearing.

Few would deny that Miss Woodland needs and deserves her compensation payment. But smaller claims against schools are increasing: in 2013, for example, Leicester City Council paid out £14,000 in compensation to a pupil scalded by a hot drink, and Essex handed over £12,000 to a pupil cut with the sharp edge of a tape measure.

In Worcestershire, a BBC Freedom of Information request revealed, the county council forked out over £1 million in compensation to school pupils in 2013.

But, claimed Miss Woodland's solicitor, Catherine Leech, after an earlier hearing, schools shouldn't be afraid to take children on trips. Even if they're held ultimately responsible for pupils' safety, they can be indemnified by contractors.

"It does not put an unreasonable burden on schools, headteachers or governors. If they have robust selection of independent contractors, a contract between them and the school and, crucially, check they are properly insured, the school can protect itself," she wrote.

"A pupil has the simple remedy of looking to the school alone if there is a negligent failing during the course of education. The school can in turn be indemnified by the contractor if they are at fault. It is a cleaner and safer situation in which parents and children are protected."

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