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Plaintiff unsuccessful in proving liability in prison assault

Eastment v State of Queensland [2018] QCA 253 – Court of Appeal Brisbane

Morrison J, Philippides J and McMurdo J

9 October 2018

Background

The plaintiff, a former correctional officer, was assaulted by a prisoner on 8 March 2009.

The plaintiff developed a significant psychiatric injury as a result of the event.

Quantum was agreed and the matter proceeded as a liability only trial.

Liability

The plaintiff's case was heavily predicated on the occurrence of an event two days before the subject event whereby the plaintiff alleged the subject prisoner was agitated and made threats against a co-worker at a committal hearing.

The plaintiff's case went further to state the co-worker reported her concerns regarding the prisoner's behaviour and the information was not appropriately provided to the plaintiff.

Judgement / Findings

The Trial

In the context of breach of duty and whether it was reasonably foreseeable an injury might have occurred from an assault by the prisoner, the trial judge concluded that she accepted it was reasonably foreseeable that if, the prisoner had expressed upset (or displayed agitation) about something that had occurred at the committal hearing two days earlier, officers with day-to-day control the prisoner may have been exposed to risk of injury.

However, the trial judge was not satisfied that the prisoner was upset or agitated during the course of the committal hearing, or that he was aggressive, made threats or otherwise behaved in a way that would have heightened the need for reporting.

On the balance of probabilities the trial judge was not satisfied that there was a heightened risk that warranted special action by the employer. The trial judge made specific reference that there was no evidence adduced by way of any expert evidence about the need for further measures to be put in place by the employer.

In terms of causation, the trial judge noted that the plaintiff was required to show that taking of a relevant step would have more probably than not have prevented or minimised the injury.

The plaintiff's evidence fell short of demonstrating this and the plaintiff therefore failed to establish causation.

The plaintiff's claim was dismissed.

The Appeal

The plaintiff appealed the findings of the trial judge. The grounds of appeal included:

  • The trial judge's findings were against the weight of the evidence;
  • The trial judge erred in her findings regarding breach of duty.

The Court of Appeal (consisting of Justices McMurdo, Philippides and McMurdo) delivered its decision on 5 October 2018 dismissing the appeal with costs.

The trial judge's findings in relation to the evidence were considered and it was found the findings being against the evidence lacked merit.

In relation to breach of duty, the appeal was limited to:

  • The failure of an officer to complete a report or otherwise provide information to management; and
  • The failure by management to pass on the information received.

Justice Morrison adopted the trial judge's findings in relation to breach of duty noting there was no requirement for distribution of information regarding the conduct of the prisoner as the information was vague and had no factual foundation.

Justice Morrison concluded there was nothing that warranted reporting.

In relation to causation, Justice Morrison noted it must be established had the information been provided to management and steps would have been taken that would more probably than not have prevented or minimised the injury in fact suffered.

Justice Morrison concluded the state of knowledge suggested no other steps were called for on the part of the employer prior to the event. One takes the events as they actually occurred then assess what would have likely been the alternative step was introduced. The learned trial judge's findings were again adopted. In all likelihood, the plaintiff's intervention would not have prevented the assault happening.

Justice Philippides adopted the findings of Justice Morrison.

Justice McMurdo agreed the appeal should be dismissed, however, considered a breach of duty was proved in that management should have passed on the information which was received from the officer which did not occur on the trial judge's findings. However in relation to causation, the reasons provided by Justice Morrison were adopted. Justice McMurdo noted the case required proof that more probably than not the heightened state of alert would have in some way prevented the assault. Justice McMurdo was not persuaded in this regard.