Coffs Harbour jetty fall

Risk Matters - Spring 2020

In September 2011, five-year-old Tedmund Polglase fell more than four metres through a jetty railing at Coffs Harbour and sustained “catastrophic injuries” after landing on sand.

He was in the care of his grandparents when he fell from the jetty. Tedmund went on to sue the council, the State of NSW, and his grandparents.

In December 2019, the court found Coffs Harbour City Council negligent and ordered it to pay financial compensation to Tedmund, while the State and his grandparents were cleared of responsibility.


The jetty was built in 1892. After almost a century of use, it fell into disrepair and was closed in 1984.

The State government owned the jetty, but in 1990, the council agreed to accept responsibility for the jetty on the condition it adhered to current safety and maintenance standards.

At the time the jetty was constructed, there were no relevant standards and the gap between the rails was larger than what is allowed now.

After the jetty restoration, council took over management in 2002, with the jetty remaining a State asset.

After the handover, two incidents occurred where one child fell from the jetty deck and a second child nearly fell. Council also received a report in May 2007, of a young child nearly falling from the deck, but caught in time.

No changes were made to the jetty railing following those incidents and the City did not conduct a risk review.

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The court found the council:

  • Owed a duty to ensure the jetty was reasonably safe for users including young children
  • That it was aware of the previous incidents involving other children
  • The judge found those incidents should have resulted in remedial action by the council
  • It was not satisfactory for council to have taken no action to address risks simply because it was satisfied that the jetty complied with relevant standards
  • Council failed to exercise reasonable care by failing to prevent Polglase’s accident by filling in gaps or adding horizontal wires
  • A warning sign placed at the jetty entrance contained two pictures referring to shallow depth under the jetty and the warning, “Use of this facility may be hazardous please be careful”
  • This did not refer to the risk of walking on the jetty as it identified no specific risk or hazard and it was at such a level of generality that it was ineffective
  • The judge found that a warning sign saying ‘supervise children when near the edge’ would have been more useful

Key lessons following this decision

If a local government is aware of an incident, it should consider if it requires further review (in terms of the existence of a possible systemic problem).

If intending to provide a risk warning, it should be specific (and helpfully identify the risk), and not make general observations of potential concern.

Local governments should not be satisfied that simply because a piece of infrastructure was compliant in accordance with past standards, that it remains so.

The local government should know that, if they invite the public to use some form of infrastructure, it would likely owe a duty as to its condition.

The Court found that while the Council believed the jetty complied with appropriate standards, this was merely a relevant factor in determining whether the Council exercised reasonable care.

This case imposed a significant financial liability upon the Council (to say nothing of course of the serious injury suffered by the plaintiff).

Ultimately, given the previous incidents of a similar nature, which the Council was aware of, the Court found it was not satisfactory for the council to have taken no action to address the known risks, simply because it was satisfied that the jetty complied with the relevant standards.

The positive is that the adoption of an effective risk management regime will avoid the repetition of such liabilities in Western Australia.

Save the date

Great Southern Risk Forum hosted by the City of Albany on 19 November 2020. For more information, contact Great Southern Regional Risk Coordinator Monty Archdale.

To register contact Anne Clarke on 9483 8850 or email [email protected].

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