Queuing student died when ‘unsuitable’ screen collapsed outside club, court told

Olivia Burt, 20, died of severe head injuries she sustained outside a venue in Durham in 2018.

A student died outside a bar run by the UK’s biggest pub owners when an “unsuitable” decorative screen used to manage the queue fell and collapsed on her, a court has heard.

Olivia Burt, a first year at Durham University, died of severe head injuries she sustained outside Missoula, a busy nightclub in the city centre owned by the Stonegate Pub Company, while on a night out in 2018.

The firm denies four breaches of health and safety legislation.

Durham student death
Olivia Burt was queuing outside the Missoula club in Durham when she sustained an ‘unsurvivable head injury’, the court was told (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Jamie Hill KC, prosecuting for Durham County Council, told Teesside Crown Court: “Tragically, on the night of the seventh into the early hours of the eighth of February 2018, a 20-year-old university student called Olivia Burt lost her life as she was queuing to get into the club.

“She and her friends, and others waiting to gain access, were standing next to a decorative screen which marked an area used by customers sitting outside.

“This screen should not have been used as a crowd control barrier or for queue management purposes.

“As the queue swelled, the press of people caused Olivia to fall through a panel in the screen and then a section of the screen fell, with other customers landing on top.

Paul Hind court case
Ms Burt was a member of Durham University’s sailing club (Royal Yachting Association/PA)

“Olivia’s head hit the concrete pavement and the metal bar of the screen with the weight of other customers landed on her head.

“She suffered an unsurvivable head injury.”

Mr Hill said the prosecution case was that Stonegate failed to ensure Ms Burt’s safety, and that of other customers, failed to properly assess risks, used inappropriate equipment and ignored danger signs.

He said Missoula, in the Walkergate precinct, had two entrances and the lower, rear one was where Ms Burt was queuing to get in to the busy Wednesday night Game Over event, frequented by university sports teams.

Ms Burt, from Milford on Sea, Hampshire, was a member of the Sailing Club and social secretaries of the various sports teams would distribute wristbands to members so they could queue-jump at the back entrance, Mr Hill said.

Door staff were supplied by an external company, and Mr Hill said there was “some criticism” of the way they managed the queues, but the legal responsibility for health and safety remained with the pub company.

CCTV footage showed queues building up in the precinct after 11pm as the venue filled towards its capacity of 630, the court heard.

Mr Hill said: “For at least 12 months, when queues formed, students were asked to stand along the side of the decorative screen.

“Nobody from Stonegate had carried out any specific risk assessment of this measure.

“Nobody from the club had turned their mind to the dangers.”

A nightclub queue was different from that of a museum, he said, with some people having had a drink and at times there would be pushing and shoving, “but nothing like a football crowd”.

“We say that by bringing the decorative screen into use to direct and order the queue to the back door, the club were using it for a purpose for which it was entirely unsuitable,” he said.

Teesside Crown Court
The trial was being held at Teesside Crown Court (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“Any kind of risk assessment would have made the company realise that the screen could be pushed over and someone may well be injured.”

Although the decorative screen was not suitable for crowd management, it was “nevertheless heavy”, Mr Hill said, and it had toppled over about half-an-hour before the fatal incident.

Mr Hill said it took four people to lift it back into place.

Two panels had come off it, and the structure which was “already unfit for the purpose of crowd management had been further weakened”, Mr Hill said.

This earlier collapse of the screen was an “important missed opportunity”, the prosecution said, and students should have been moved away from it.

Mr Hill said: “By re-erecting that barrier, and allowing the queuing to continue, we say they allowed the conditions leading to Olivia’s death to persist.”

Ms Burt and her friends arrived after the first screen collapse and were unaware it had happened.

Between 11.30pm and midnight, the venue was full and large numbers of people were waiting to get in, Mr Hill said.

“Part of the queue was lined up next to the decorative screen, and some students were leaning against it.

“There was a holding area for others arriving, but those numbers were continuing to grow.”

At 11.48pm, the decorative screen gave way again, the court heard.

Mr Hill said: “Olivia fell through the panels, the screen went over, others fell and tragically Olivia died despite the attempts of initially students, door staff and then paramedics, nothing could be done.

“She had suffered a devastating head injury.”

He said: “The prosecution says the fatal accident was foreseeable, predictable and preventable.”

The trial, which is expected to last up to three weeks, continues.

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