Theatre operators have been urged to review their health and safety arrangements after a 36-year-old former stage manager won £3.7m in compensation following a three-metre fall that left her wheelchair-bound.
Rachael Presdee (left) suffered serious spinal injuries and was left a paraplegic after stepping through an unguarded and unmarked balcony door at the Soho Theatre in London, plunging onto the open stage below.
She received the agreed out-of-court settlement on 3 December 2014, and the Soho Theatre Company, based in Dean Street in London’s West End, was also fined £20,000 at Southwark Crown Court on 15 December after admitting two breaches of health and safety legislation in a prosecution brought by Westminster City Council.
Ms Presdee was working for the Headlong theatre company preparing the stage for a public performance on 9 June 2012 when she climbed a backstage staircase in search of a theatre employee who could locate the switch for the stage lights. Ms Presdee, who had not worked at the theatre before, went through a standard, unmarked door which had no warning signs or notices.
When she opened the door she was immediately met with a black curtain which she assumed was a light blocker commonly found in theatres, leading to a room. However, the doorway, designed to act as a balcony during performances of Romeo and Juliet, was unguarded and she stepped into open air above the stage.
She was in hospital for six months, is unable to walk or lead a normal life and will not be returning to her chosen career because of her injuries.
Speaking after the compensation payout and court case, Ms Presdee said: “I just walked through a door – something everyone does on a daily basis. It never crossed my mind that in doing so I would receive such devastating injuries.
“Had basic safety management practices been undertaken I would not be wheelchair bound. I hope this will serve to highlight the fact that safety must always be a priority.”
In addition to the fine, Soho Theatre Company Ltd was ordered to pay £10,000 towards Westminster City Council’s prosecution costs after pleading guilty to breaching section 3 of the HSWA 1974 for failing to protect the safety of visiting production staff; and regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 for failing to identify and manage health and safety risks.
Councillor Nickie Aiken, Westminster City Council cabinet nember for public protection, said: “While the fine handed down cannot turn the clock back for Rachael, it does send a clear message to theatres that their safety responsibilities are paramount.”
The £3.7m payout was pursued on Ms Presdee’s behalf by the entertainment industry union Equity, and is the biggest compensation settlement for a theatre accident in the union’s history.
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