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Granny died after falling from 'unsafe' Exeter City Council ferry steps, court hears

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: December 02, 2013


Dorothy Stevens, aged 80, fell into the River Exe after her walking stick broke as she was struggling to get up a set of uneven steps onto Exeter Quay during a rain squall

A grandmother drowned after falling in a river because the steps she was using to get off a ferry were unsafe, a jury has been told.

Dorothy Stevens, aged 80, fell into the River Exe after her walking stick broke as she was struggling to get up a set of uneven steps onto Exeter Quay during a rain squall.

Her daughter and grand daughter watched from the river bank as she fell back into the water and drowned before rescuers could reach her, Exeter Crown Court was told.

The centuries old ferry, which was pulled across the river by hand, was run by Exeter City Council, who are being prosecuted for failing to ensure the safety of its users.

The steps leading up from the ferry were of uneven depths, making them unsafe to use and the guard rail did not reach all the way to the bottom, the court was told.

Mrs Stevens, from Silverton, near Exeter, was a keen member of her local Women’s Institute and Over 60s club but suffered from arthritis and walked with a stick.

The council deny breaking the health and safety and work act by failing to ensure the stone steps were as safe as reasonably practicable.

The jury have been shown a wooden model of the steps which is intended to show how the rise between the bottom and the first one is greater than the others.

Mr David Morgan, prosecuting on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive, said the council is responsible for the steps even though the ferry itself is run by a contractor.

The ferry is used by 20,000 to 30,000 visitors a year and is known as the Butts Ferry in memory of a campaigner who fought to prevent the service being shut down in the 1960s.

Mr Morgan said the tragedy which led to the prosecution happened on July 20, 2010 when Dorothy Stevens was enjoying a day out with her daughter Mrs Gillian Phillips and granddaughter Melissa.

Melissa had already taken the ferry and was on the quayside and Gillian got off first and was about to help her mother up the steps when she fell.

Mr Morgan said:”Mrs Stevens tried to climb the steps. She struggled to get her feet on the step and take hold of the hand rail. Her daughter went to assist and the walking stick in her right hand broke.

“She fell in the river and drowned. Her untimely death led to an investigation into the steps and whether they were suitable in construction, given the number of people who used them and their range of ages.”

He said the steps did not comply with building regulations which the council itself enforced on others and have since been modified twice to make them safer.

He said:”We say the risks were pretty obvious. The fact that this accident occurred established the existence of risk.

“Exeter City Council is a multi million pound business or undertaking which had access to experts in construction. It enforces the law in relation to building regulations and health and safety.

“The risk of someone falling is always there with steps and in this instance there was the added risk of tumbling into water with the associated risks. The two problems were the steps themselves and the hand rail.

“This location was out in the open and next to a river and there were people using them going up and down at the same time. A missed step could result in a fall into the river, with the tragic consequences that occurred in this case.”