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Basic task results in negligence

This case study demonstrates

  • An employer needs to carefully consider complaints made by employees and respond to them in an appropriate way.
  • The credibility of an injured worker will always be relevant at trial.

The facts

The injured worker (the claimant) was employed as a sales representative by Invitro Technologies Pty Ltd (the defendant). At the time of her injury she was working in her usual office environment, in a partitioned area containing a desk and chair, overhead shelves to the left of her desk and a map (fixed to the partitioned wall) to the right. There was a plastic mat under the worker's chair.

On 8 May 2007 the worker was planning an upcoming sales trip. She stood up from her chair to retrieve a book from the overhead shelf, and then turned to her right to look at the map. As she went to sit back down, her chair was not there, and she fell to the floor.

The worker consulted her general practitioner on the date of the incident. The GP's notes recorded that the worker had 'slipped bum off edge of chair and landed on tail bone'. Initial x-rays did not show any fractures, so her injuries were treated 'conservatively'.

As the worker's pain and disability continued, she was referred by her GP to an orthopaedic surgeon, who arranged a bone scan of the affected area. This bone scan revealed a fractured sacrum.

Appeal

An appeal was heard on 18 February 2011 Brisbane's Court of Appeal. The judgement of this appeal was handed down on 15 March 2011. The appeal was centred on the argument that the trial judge made an error in favouring the plaintiff's version of events over the employer's and in failing to give adequate reasons for his findings.

It was also argued that the claimant's loss of income was not attributable to her injury.

Liability

In challenging the trial judge's decision that the employer was negligent, the employer pointed out that the co-worker did not give evidence that she had complained to the office manager about the mats. The employer's argument was that there was no evidence that the mat was dangerously slippery or that the chair moved to any dangerous extent because of the mat. Therefore, the trial judge should have found that the claimant was injured because she misjudged sitting on the chair and slipped off it. It was also argued that the oral evidence by the witnesses was essentially unchallenged, and that the employer was entitled to ask why, in the face of that evidence, the trial judge concluded that the mats were unreasonably slippery.

Judgement/damages

The Court of Appeal was not persuaded that the trial judge had made an error. It was held that whilst the trial judge should set out findings as to how the judge came to accept one set of evidence over a conflicting set of significant evidence, the judge does not have to make explicit findings on each disputed piece of evidence.

The appellant court found the reasons for the findings about the behaviour of the chair on the mat in the cubicle were sufficiently clear.

The resolution of the conflicts in the evidence turned largely on the trial judge's assessment of the credibility and reliability of the witnesses. There was no other evidence that assisted in the resolution of those conflicts. The trial judge did not overlook the employer's evidence – he referred to that evidence but accepted the evidence given by the injured worker, finding that she was a credible and reliable witness and that her evidence was consistent and truthful.

The trial judge's finding that the employer was liable was affirmed. The court also found no ground to set aside the trial court's assessment of damages.