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University liable for damages to paralysed student

Stellenbosch University has been found to be liable for damages to a student who was seriously injured when a fire broke out in one of its hostels in 2007.

Izak Potgieter - a 21-year-old‚ third-year student at the Eendrag men’s hostel - was asleep in his room on the third floor when the fire broke out on August 9‚ 2007. He does not know what exactly woke him that morning. He heard the roar of fire and people shouting and running further down the corridor.

When he tried to open his room’s door‚ he was confronted by a wall of flames and overpowering heat‚ rendering it impossible for him to exit.

He was forced to escape the fire through the window of his top floor room. He only regained consciousness in hospital two weeks later‚ rendered a paraplegic‚ with burn wounds to his hands‚ arms‚ back‚ legs and feet.

Potgieter’s case was that the university was obliged to ensure that proper and reasonable measures and procedures were in place‚ and were implemented‚ for the safety of students in its hostels.

He said the absence of fire stops in the common roof void of Eendrag posed a real and imminent fire risk to the residents of the top floor immediately below the roof void‚ given that once a fire reaches a roof void it will spread rapidly unless proper preventative measures were in place.

There had been another fire at another residence known as Huis Ten Bosch with a similar roof structure to Eendrag’s in 1983.

Potgieter said it was only in 2011 that the university implemented a roof risk mitigation project at those hostels where there was a real risk to life and safety of residents‚ which included the installation of fire stops in pitched roof voids.

He claimed that the steps taken by the university‚ namely to install smoke detectors in the roof void of Eendrag‚ linked to an alarm‚ were completely inadequate.

The High Court in Cape Town agreed with Potgieter‚ saying there was little doubt that he had discharged the onus resting upon him to show that‚ on a balance of probabilities‚ the university was negligent.

The court said a “diligent father” in the position of the university would have foreseen‚ after the Huis Ten Bosch fire in 1983‚ that its failure to take reasonable steps to guard against a similar occurrence would cause injury to students in its hostels.

“A (diligent father) in the position of the (university) would also have taken reasonable steps to guard against such an occurrence‚” Judge Judith Cloete said in a judgment passed on Friday.

The amount on damages will be determined at a later date.

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