Labourer's toe job costs council pounds 200,000

HISTORY does not record Ray Knowles's remarks when a lump of pavement flagstone landed on his toe, but the concrete-on-flesh collision in a Liverpool street has had repercussions in politics and law ranging from the profound to the profane.

Mr Knowles, 'labourer flagger' to the city council, was repairing a pavement in 1989. As he manoeuvred a flagstone, a corner broke off. Mr Knowles suffered pain and injury; he sued.

Protracted litigation could have been avoided, but Liverpool has a reputation unique among councils. 'Their legal department is deeply suspicious,' a solicitor said. 'They think everyone is trying to take them for a ride. You don't get anywhere with them unless you go all the way to court . . . Look at the law on tripping-up on pavements: most of the cases and precedents were set in Liverpool.'

So Mr Knowles had to seek redress at the county court and, in 1991, Mr Recorder Briggs awarded him damages of pounds 3,092, but not costs.

Still the council was aggrieved. Off it went to the Court of Appeal, arguing an esoteric point - that a flagstone was not part of a labourer flagger's plant and machinery for which the council was responsible. The appeal court said it was. So did the House of Lords when the council tried there. All five Law Lords marked the fourth anniversary of Mr Knowles's toe job with an unequivocal ruling which has broken new ground in negligence law. A flagstone is equipment.

Other councils have watched with dismay as Liverpool dragged its wretched flagstone through the courts. 'The more they try to wriggle out of compensation payments, the more they pin down all of us,' a solicitor with a neighbouring authority said. 'Every time Liverpool think they've found a loophole in the law, the judges resolve it against them.'

Costs in the case of Ray Knowles's toe are estimated at pounds 200,000. The council will have to pay, a prospect which has alarmed councillors who were unaware that un-elected officials had begun the trail-blazing litigation.

The latest advice is that the costs may have to be paid by the city engineers workforce which successfully tendered for the pavement repair contract. But if Ray Knowles receives a bill for his own successful litigation, his remarks may be even more pained than on that fateful day.