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Bristol City Council denies liability as family of drowned cyclist sues

Sean Philipps died in 2013 when he fell off his bike and into the city's floating harbour...

 

Bristol City Council has denied liability for the death of a cyclist who drowned in the city’s floating harbour.

The family of Sean Philipps are claiming up to £2 million in damages from the local authority in a case currently being heard by the High Court, reports BBC News.

Mr Philipps, 40, fell off his bike and into the harbour as he rode to work along Princes Wharf in March 2013.

The action, brought by his partner Hayley Liddle and their two sons, seeks to establish among other things that signage was inadequate and that their should have been railings to prevent people from accidentally falling into the water.

Vincent Williams, representing Ms Liddle, said the location where the incident happened "presented an unusual combination of hazards", such as "slippery metalwork" as well as the "unguarded edge" of the wharf and "steep drop into the water or on to boats".

He accepted that there was no way of being certain if the cyclist had seen any warning signs, but added that such signage as existed was "not particularly good. It was small, it was very high up".

Mr Williams said that if "a combination of measures had been adopted, namely effective signage, railings, some kind of physical impediment or discouragement to cyclists to stop them ... that would in all probability have led to this accident not occurring."

James Burton, defending Bristol City Council, said: "Mr Phillips' death was and is a tragedy, but it was not the city council's fault.

"The law does not require occupiers to provide a risk-free environment, and it expects adults who choose to run obvious risks to take care for themselves."

He also said that Mr Philips would have seen signs warning cyclists to take an alternative route, and that there was “good reason” for there to be no guardrail along the harbour edge since the site is a working heritage wharf.

At a pre-trial hearing earlier this year, Judge Veronique Buehrlen QC ruled that the family would be able to rely on expert testimony from an accident reconstruction engineer.

The council had said that the witness was not qualified to provide evidence on issues such as risk assessment and signage, and that she had exceeded her brief by commenting on waterside safety features elsewhere.

However the judge rejected the council’s argument and said that allowing the evidence would “assist the court.”

In 2014, a coroner’s inquest into Mr Philips’ death was told that concerns regarding train and crane tracks at the wharf had been raised in a risk assessment daring from in 2003.

The case continues.

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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14 comments

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brooksby | 5 years ago
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IIRC there were signs saying cycle route round the back of the M Shed museum : it still has sunken tram tracks, speed humps, and is not a direct route. The direct route is between the museum and the dockside and has tram tracks and more pedestrians (because it's the direct route): it had advisory dismount signs and advisory signs pointing you the other way. After this incident, stronger worded signs - seriously! Go the other way! - appeared, and chains to make it harder for cyclists to just go through. I'm not entirely certain why the tracks are still there since nothing that moves on the dockside now uses them but y'know: Heritage, innit?

Avatar
Awavey replied to brooksby | 5 years ago
1 like
brooksby wrote:

I'm not entirely certain why the tracks are still there since nothing that moves on the dockside now uses them but y'know: Heritage, innit?

 

well pop down there at the weekend at the end of the month and youll soon see  1 or if you cant wait use google maps

Avatar
brooksby replied to Awavey | 5 years ago
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Awavey wrote:
brooksby wrote:

I'm not entirely certain why the tracks are still there since nothing that moves on the dockside now uses them but y'know: Heritage, innit?

 

well pop down there at the weekend at the end of the month and youll soon see  1 or if you cant wait use google maps

I know that there's the harbourside train, but that runs on the train tracks. What runs on the sunken tracks that are the hazard?

And if they're such a hazard, how come they've been left on the 'recommended' cycle route as well as on the 'not recommended ' dockside?

Avatar
hawkinspeter replied to brooksby | 5 years ago
1 like
brooksby wrote:
Awavey wrote:
brooksby wrote:

I'm not entirely certain why the tracks are still there since nothing that moves on the dockside now uses them but y'know: Heritage, innit?

 

well pop down there at the weekend at the end of the month and youll soon see  1 or if you cant wait use google maps

I know that there's the harbourside train, but that runs on the train tracks. What runs on the sunken tracks that are the hazard?

And if they're such a hazard, how come they've been left on the 'recommended' cycle route as well as on the 'not recommended ' dockside?

Aren't they the tracks for the cranes?

Avatar
brooksby replied to hawkinspeter | 5 years ago
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hawkinspeter wrote:
brooksby wrote:
Awavey wrote:
brooksby wrote:

I'm not entirely certain why the tracks are still there since nothing that moves on the dockside now uses them but y'know: Heritage, innit?

well pop down there at the weekend at the end of the month and youll soon see  1 or if you cant wait use google maps

I know that there's the harbourside train, but that runs on the train tracks. What runs on the sunken tracks that are the hazard?

And if they're such a hazard, how come they've been left on the 'recommended' cycle route as well as on the 'not recommended ' dockside?

Aren't they the tracks for the cranes?

Really?  I honestly hadn't realised that those things actually *moved*...

However, I'd still point out that on the road behind the M-Shed - the recommended cycle route -  the tracks are also still there and you can't tell me that the cranes go behind there.

(I am not really sure what I think about the whole case: I don't think that a public authority can or should even be expected to remove every possible risk from the public space/environment, and I'm surprised that anyone would ride so close to the dockside edge.  But (as you know) BCCs finances are utterly f-ed and I'm not sure that losing this case would help anyone (other than the family of the cyclist).  It might make things worse, if it - for example - caused the council to close public access to large swathes of the centre because they're too close to the water...)

Avatar
hawkinspeter replied to brooksby | 5 years ago
1 like
brooksby wrote:
hawkinspeter wrote:
brooksby wrote:
Awavey wrote:
brooksby wrote:

I'm not entirely certain why the tracks are still there since nothing that moves on the dockside now uses them but y'know: Heritage, innit?

well pop down there at the weekend at the end of the month and youll soon see  1 or if you cant wait use google maps

I know that there's the harbourside train, but that runs on the train tracks. What runs on the sunken tracks that are the hazard?

And if they're such a hazard, how come they've been left on the 'recommended' cycle route as well as on the 'not recommended ' dockside?

Aren't they the tracks for the cranes?

Really?  I honestly hadn't realised that those things actually *moved*...

However, I'd still point out that on the road behind the M-Shed - the recommended cycle route -  the tracks are also still there and you can't tell me that the cranes go behind there.

(I am not really sure what I think about the whole case: I don't think that a public authority can or should even be expected to remove every possible risk from the public space/environment, and I'm surprised that anyone would ride so close to the dockside edge.  But (as you know) BCCs finances are utterly f-ed and I'm not sure that losing this case would help anyone (other than the family of the cyclist).  It might make things worse, if it - for example - caused the council to close public access to large swathes of the centre because they're too close to the water...)

You can book a crane ride here: https://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/m-shed/whats-on/crane-trips/

Video of a crane moving: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGpDbVoo2CU

I watched this crane dance a few years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-ACyQ1NhfU

I don't know about the tracks behind the M-Shed, but it's quite possible that they're a kind of siding for the cranes.

 

Avatar
brooksby replied to hawkinspeter | 5 years ago
0 likes
hawkinspeter wrote:

You can book a crane ride here: https://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/m-shed/whats-on/crane-trips/

Video of a crane moving: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGpDbVoo2CU

I watched this crane dance a few years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-ACyQ1NhfU

I don't know about the tracks behind the M-Shed, but it's quite possible that they're a kind of siding for the cranes.

I did not know that, and stand corrected.  Does kind of make you wonder why BCC didn't 'properly' close that stretch of dockside to everyone except pedestrians, then...

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mattsccm | 5 years ago
1 like

FFS! Assuming he wasn't blind he could see all the hazards.
Sorry for the family but bloke was stupid to do this.

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BehindTheBikesheds | 5 years ago
1 like

Not removing obvious hazards to people who wish to go about their business by whatever mode is irresponsible, particularly so when that which is presenting the hazard no longer serves a purpose.

Not making people aware of the dangers of said hazards in a simple and easily seen way at night and day is irresponsible.

Not putting up barriers from a very obvious danger is irresponsible, not putting up barriers to this danger when there is another hazard very close by is reckless.

I hope they are successful and Bristol CC are taken to the cleaners, a tiny fraction of thinking would have meant a father, a husband, a son would still be alive.

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janusz0 | 5 years ago
0 likes

Is that a picture of the harbour in question?  If so, did the Council install the fence wires between the bollards following the death?  If so, doesn't that mean that the Council has accepted some responsibility?

However, sad as the death is, I can't see how it isn't a cyclist's responsibilty to choose how to travel across a historic monument.

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jollygoodvelo | 5 years ago
5 likes

While obviously I'm sure everyone sympathises with the family and friends of the deceased, on the face of it I don't quite see how it's even a case that someone accidentally riding into the docks can be the council's fault.  They've been there a couple of hundred years now, after all.

Bristol's docks are one of the key attractions of the city, should they be closed down and people barred from getting within ten feet of the water?

 

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hawkinspeter replied to jollygoodvelo | 5 years ago
2 likes
jollygoodvelo wrote:

While obviously I'm sure everyone sympathises with the family and friends of the deceased, on the face of it I don't quite see how it's even a case that someone accidentally riding into the docks can be the council's fault.  They've been there a couple of hundred years now, after all.

Bristol's docks are one of the key attractions of the city, should they be closed down and people barred from getting within ten feet of the water?

The issue is with the sub-standard signage and the tram lines that grab bike wheels and then nothing to stop you skidding into the water. I don't know if the council changed the signs after this incident as I rarely go down there (usually only when I'm looking for Gromits), but whenever I have been there, I've noticed the signs easily enough.

I'm really split on this one and can't decide between the council being at fault or the cyclist not being careful enough.

 

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Mungecrundle | 5 years ago
8 likes

Not sure how an open dock wharf can be made safe without simply banning people from accessing it. Much as I feel sympathy for the family of Mr Phillips and understand the financial imperative to hold another legal entity to account for reparations of financial loss, there is a significant danger to civil liberties and freedoms for the rest of us in taking away reasonable personal responsibility for ones actions and decisions.

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brooksby | 5 years ago
0 likes
Quote:

He accepted that there was no way of being certain if the cyclist had seen any warning signs, but added that such signage as existed was "not particularly good. It was small, it was very high up".

Its been a while since I've been down there, since the Chocolate Path is (still!) closed, but I thought the signage was all the usual advisory 'cyclists dismount'.  No proper and legally enforceable 'No Cycling' signs.

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