A woman who tripped and fell downstairs while carrying her baby granddaughter has been successfully sued by her own family for causing head injuries that left the little girl severely disabled.
The accident happened early one morning during a family holiday in a cottage near Forster, on the New South Wales north coast, in January 2006. After the baby, Molly Boland, woke up and did not settle following a feed, her grandmother, Hannalore Hoffmann, 55, offered to take her downstairs at about 5.30am.
With only a weak dawn light illuminating the stairs, and concerned not to wake other family members who were sleeping, she asked her daughter, Susan, to leave her bedside lamp on until she had descended.
On her way down, though, Ms Hoffmann stumbled and fell. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she was still clutching five-month-old Molly, who had “traumatic” head injuries, the NSW Supreme Court was told. Susan Hoffmann and her husband, Jason Boland, subsequently sued her for negligence.
In his judgement yesterday, Justice Robert Shallcross Hulme ruled that parents and close relatives have a legal duty “to exercise reasonable care when they undertake physical actions involving their children”. However, he gave no indication as to what damages he might order Ms Hoffmann to pay.
The case involved a complicated web of lawsuits. Sued by her daughter and son-in-law, Ms Hoffmann counter-sued the holiday home owner, a building designer and others involved in the A$400,000 (£251,550 pound) renovation of the cottage, which was completed in late 2005, and in the design and construction of the staircase.
She argued that her fall was caused, at least partly, by the absence of a handrail, anti-slip finish and sensor lights. She also highlighted the fact that the staircase featured winders – wedge or triangle-shaped stairs.
However, the judge dismissed all the cross-claims, and found Molly’s grandmother primarily responsible for her injuries. He observed that winders were a common and legal feature of domestic staircases, as were the balustrade and newel posts used instead of a continuous handrail. He also rejected the idea that sensor lights should have been installed to protect people who chose not to turn on the lights.
Ms Hoffmann told the court that she was familiar with the stairs and descended them slowly and carefully. But the judge said that, given the circumstances and “the absence of reasonable illumination”, he was persuaded that she had not taken reasonable care.