A viola player who suffered a life-changing hearing injury, has won a High Court judgment against the Royal Opera House (ROH) for acoustic shock in the first case of its kind.
Professional musician Chris Goldscheider, 45, had been forced to give up a successful career after just one rehearsal day that left him with irreversible hearing damage, it was heard in court on 28 March.
It was heard how he had been playing in the orchestra at the ROH during a rehearsal of Wagner’s powerful Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) opera on the day of the incident, on Saturday 1 September 2012.
Seated in the orchestra pit in front of the brass section, it was heard how he was in the ‘direct line of fire’. “It was excruciatingly loud and painful,” read the judgment given to court.
Over the course of the day, noise levels exceeded at times 130 decibels, equivalent to that of a jet engine.
The court heard how Mr Goldscheider felt dizzy and sick following the incident. He now has ongoing increased sensitivity to sound (hypercausis), hearing loss in his right ear and he is no longer able to work in an orchestra due to the noise.
Particularly loud sections
The court heard how ROH had provided the claimant with custom moulded earplugs, fitted by a specialist in Harley Street, and he had been used to following the usual practice among orchestra members to wear these during noisy sections of music.
However, on the day of the incident he did not have his own written musical part to prepare for such sections. “He was aware that [Wagner] has some particularly loud sections but did not accept that he knew the opera well,” read the judgment. Although the ROH had prepared a risk assessment for the production, it did not include rehearsals, it was found.
In addition to the failure to enforce the mandatory wearing of hearing protection in the orchestra pit at all times, there had been a failure to undertake any monitoring of noise levels in the ‘cramped’ orchestra pit.
The ROH was found to have breached the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, with damages to be assessed at a later date.
A message to the industry
David Platt QC, defending for the ROH, said there has “never been a case of acoustic shock in the music industry”. But Justice Nicola Davies said she was ‘satisfied’ that the claimant had incurred acoustic shock, a condition usually brought on from a one-time exposure to excessive sound pressure.
Commentators say the judgment will be a wake-up call to other venues to assess risks of impacts on all types of noise exposure. “Employers have previously concentrated on protecting employees from long-term exposure to noise, given the known risk of noise induced hearing loss,” write Toby Scott and Ruth Quinn on law firm Clyde & Co.’s website.
“However, they now also have a duty to assess and mitigate risks arising from single exposures that could result in foreseeable injury
They add that the judgment “may lead to the use of amplification of classical music for the first time, although this is not likely to be welcomed by audiences”.
James Tingay, at noise monitoring firm Cirrus Research, said orchestras will need to re-assess their health and safety policies and procedures: “The High Court has sent a very clear message that they are not exempt from Noise at Work legislation.”
Damages are yet to be decided. The Royal Opera House is also said to be considering appealing the decision calling it “a complex case” in a statement published on Classic FM’s website.
To read the full judgment click here
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