Preparing to run away to the circus – claims arising from aerial classes

August 13, 2020

Posted by: Victoria Oliver


I don’t know where the idea about running away to the circus came from but it feels like it has been around for a long time. In recent years there has been a boom in the number of circus skills classes available meaning that for those who dream of running away to the circus, it has become a lot easier to start training!

Circus skills cover a wide range of activities including juggling, handstands or even plate spinning!  However, some classes are expanding into aerial activities such as trapeze hoops or aerial silks.  Aerial silks involves using fabric, which is hung from above, to suspend yourself and complete turns or spirals.  If you have seen professional silk performers it is breathtaking.  As a form of fun exercise it is one which is practiced at height and as such it is a riskier activity, as when anything is done at height there is a risk of serious injury such as a spinal injury.  So what is your position, as someone engaging in such an activity, should something go wrong and you are badly injured?

Personal injury law is an ever changing area of law.  It is one that has had to adapt over the years as the world changes.  If you go back even a few years electric scooters were not a common sight but now they are appearing more and more and as and when accidents happen involving them then claims are entirely possible.  Similarly, autonomous vehicles were once the work of science fiction but are now self-driving up and down our motorways and again in the event they are the cause of an accident, then the law makes provision for a claim to be made.  In a similar vein whilst accidents arising from classes such as circus skills or aerial skills may be a fairly new type of claim, a claim is still entirely possible should the following three questions be answered positively:

  1. Was there a duty owed?
  2. Was that duty breached?
  3. Was there damage as a result of that breach?

But what about the fact that such classes or activities have an inherent element of risk about them?  I think there is still a common misconception that if someone willingly takes part in a risky activity then they are accepting that they might be injured and so can’t bring a claim for compensation.  However the fact that the activity was risky in the first place doesn’t preclude someone from taking legal action if they are subsequently hurt as under English law you can’t exclude liability for death or personal injury caused by negligence.  And that is a good thing because people make mistakes.  Sometimes those mistakes are intentional but more often than not they are unintentional.  They are “human error” but errors which can have devastating and life changing consequences.  For example, playing football is a risky activity.  There is a chance that you might be injured and players accept a certain level of risk but that doesn’t mean that a player should accept the consequences of a tackle so careless its results in a broken leg that ends a player’s career.  Similarly if you take part in an aerial class you are entitled to rely on upon the class provider to provide a safe environment in which to learn with properly secured rigging and safety apparatus.  Whilst you may accept there is a chance you might lose your grip for example that doesn’t mean you accept the consequences should the silks be secured incorrectly and cause you to fall to the ground.

There are numerous real life cases where Claimants have been successful in showing that whilst the activity they were taking part in carried significant risks, the fact that they were injured was as a result of the Defendants failing to take sufficient care meant that they had valid claims such as the football example above.  Similarly there are cases where Claimants have been unsuccessful in claiming for injuries arising from risky activities.  For example there is a case of a Claimant who dived into a shallow pool in an unauthorised swimming area with clear warning signs who failed in their claim for injuries suffered.  There was also an inexperienced indoor rock climber who attempted to imitate other climbers and fell badly, who also failed.  Each and every case will turn on its independent facts.

I have written a previous blog on a similar topic that was in response to Beth Tweddle sustaining serious spinal injuries whilst taking part in the Channel 4 show ‘The Jump’ in 2016.  A show whose tag line was “Celebrities take on some of the most challenging and dangerous winter sports as they bid to be crowned champion of The Jump”.  In that blog I made reference to the quote below which comes from the case of Cleghorn v Oldham [1927] 43 TLR 465 and I am reiterating it again here because, despite it being nearly 100 years old I think it still remains valid today.

“Games might be and are the serious business of life to many people.  It would be extraordinary to say that people could not recover from injuries sustained in the business of life, whether that was football, or motor racing, or any other of those pursuits which are instinctively classed as games but which everyone knew quite well to be serious business transactions for the persons engaged therein.”

Leisure pursuits and exercise are important for both mental and physical health.  People should be encouraged to do them and they should be done safely.  It is important however that people understand that an activity being risky in itself does not prevent someone who is injured as a result of someone else’s negligence from bringing a claim.  When that happens the law does provide an avenue through which someone with a life changing injury such as a spinal cord injury, can seek compensation.

Victoria Oliver is an associate solicitor in the Spinal Injuries team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.  If you or a loved one have suffered a spinal injury as a result of an accident, someone else’s negligence or you are concerned about the treatment you have received, contact Victoria in confidence on 020 3973 5002 or at victoriaoliver@boltburdonkemp.co.uk.  Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors from the Spinal Injury team will contact you.  Find out more about the Spinal Injury team.

Posted by: Victoria Oliver

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