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Injury of an Employee due to an unsafe system of work

Russell v Hancock Farm Company Pty Ltd [2013] QDC 129
McGill SC DCJ
14 June 2013

Background

The injured worker (the claimant) was employed as a casual farm hand from April 2008 and on the night of 8th September 2008 the claimant sustained a soft tissue injury to his neck. The claimant was driving a tractor to haul a piece of equipment designed to spread liquid fertiliser on the ground around trees. The plaintiff needed to monitor that the nozzles would not clog and would turn his head and look over his shoulder to do this.

Liability

It was a liability and quantum matter.

  • The Court expects employers to implement and enforce a safe system of work to ensure that workers are not injured while at work.
  • Regardless if an injury is an aggravation of a pre existing condition, if an employer is found to be negligent in implementing and/or enforcing a safe system of work, the Court can award substantial compensation to an injured worker

The aspects of the employer's (the defendant) operations were questioned by the Court:

  • The tractor was designed so that the driver would face forward.
  • The seat could be unlocked so that it could rotate
  • There were no rear vision mirrors, inside or outside the cabin.
  • Mirrors could not be placed outside because at times branches would sweep against the tractor.
  • The work was being carried out at night where there was poor visibility

The defendant argued that other employees who have performed the same task and used the same system of work did not sustain any injuries. Expert witnesses argued that workers may experience muscle soreness but this would not cause significant pathology.

Judgement

In awarding damages, the Court heard the opinions of various medical providers who assessed the injured worker during his claim. It was generally accepted by these treating medical providers that the injured worker could not return to work.

The judge felt that filters could have been installed to prevent clogging and turning around could have been eliminated by fitting appropriate rear vision mirrors with the jets adequately lit. Whilst the seat could be unlocked so that it could rotate, it did not rotate far enough. The judge stated the system of work used was unsafe and this was a breach of the defendant's duties to the plaintiff. Even though other employees had used the system of work without incident that did not mean that an employer does not need to take precautions for particular workers. The injury was foreseeable given that turning around to check the sprayers could cause muscle soreness and in a person with pre-existing neck problems it is foreseeable that an injury would occur.

The judge considered there was psychological injury in the form of an adjustment disorder arising from the continued pain and the plaintiff's bad reaction to this.

Judge McGill delivered the verdict on the case of Russell vs Hancock Farm Company Pty Ltd on Friday 14 June 2013. Judgment was made for the Plaintiff in the sum of $265,014.60 which was clear of the statutory claim refund.