A Sheriff has criticised Debenhams after a shop worker plunged to her death down a ‘pitch dark’ back staircase in their flagship Glasgow store.
Sheriff Craig Scott heard three days of evidence at a fatal accident inquiry into the death of Marie O’Neill, 28, a young mum who lived in Haymarket Street in Glasgow.
Marie was found with severe head injuries at the foot of the staircase leading to the store’s loading bay, where she had gone to put a bag of rubbish into a compactor in February last year. She worked as food advisory assistant in the store’s third floor restaurant.
She was rushed to Glasgow Royal Infirmary, but neurosurgeons advised that her injuries were non-sustainable and her life support machine was switched off a few hours after admission.
The court heard that Marie was not in any hurry when she descended the stairs, her clothing and footwear was perfectly appropriate, the stairs were well maintained and there were no obstruction to cause her to fall.
That left only the lighting as the most credible cause of the accident.
Sheriff Scott said that as there were no eyewitness it was impossible to say if the stairwell was lit when Marie began her descent but he rejected a plea from Debenham’s lawyers to return a formal finding.
He said: “In my opinion it is more probable than not that her death was caused due to the presence of darkness at some point during the descent.
“There was evidence to the effect that when the lighting was not illuminated the staircase was ‘pitch dark’.
“Accordingly I find that the accident might have been avoided had the stairwell been permanently illuminated in a manner similar to the rest of the store”.
“Marie’s death is all the more shocking because it was such an ordinary set of circumstances.
“The hardest part for the family to bear is that it could have been so easily avoided if Debenhams had taken the reasonable precaution of keeping the stairway permanently lit as is they do with the rest of the store.”
Linda O’Neill, said: “I am so pleased that the Sheriff has held Debenhams responsible.
“Their Health and Safety Officer tried to say that Marie would have walked down the stairs in the pitch dark because she knew them so well. But we knew that was nonsense and it was very upsetting for the family to have to sit and listen to that.
“We are all devastated by Marie’s death, particularly our Mum is struggling to come to terms with it.
“We are really angry that Debenhams kept every other part of the store permanently lit, but not the loading bay because it was only used by staff and not the customers.
“Marie had worked at Debenhams and Lewis’s before that for 22 years. She knew everyone from the general manager to the store room staff, and everyone loved her because was such lovely person, always laughing and full of fun.”
Since the accident Debenhams have taped over the switches controlling the stair lights, and installed an infrared system and time clock to ensure the lights stay on during working hours.