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Corrective Services Officer fails in claim relating to unprovoked prisoner assault

Corbin v State of Queensland (Queensland Corrective Services) [2019] QSC 110

Justice Ryan

3 May 2019

Background

Mr Corbin, a corrective services officer, was assaulted by prisoner X on 10 October 2013 resulting in him suffering a number of injuries including a head injury. Mr Corbin had earlier asked prisoner X to smoke outside but he persisted. The attack occurred shortly after Mr Corbin re-approached the prisoner, without another officer, to again ask him to stop smoking. Without warning, prisoner X struck Mr Corbin several times in the head.

Prisoner X had no history of assaulting officers, although had some history of being involved in assaults with other prisoners, mainly while at another prison facility.

Liability

Liability was disputed at trial on the basis that the assault was not reasonably foreseeable (based on prisoner X having an unremarkable behavioural history) nor was it reasonably preventable.

Mr Corbin argued that:

  • the imposition of an intensive management plan (IMP) would have prevented the assault.
  • the prisoner should not have been in a protection unit, although that allegation was ultimately abandoned by Mr Corbin at the end of trial.
  • his co-worker failed to maintain line of sight vision of Mr Corbin, having left the compound just prior to Mr Corbin approaching the prisoner the second time (Vicarious liability).

Judgement/findings

The court found that:

  • While the prisoner's behavioural history may have been viewed by various departmental officers as 'unremarkable', the legal test to apply was whether he posed a foreseeable risk requiring management under an IMP.
  • Based on the prisoner's history, he did not need to be managed under an IMP.
  • The imposition of an IMP would not have prevented the assault, even if implemented.
  • The employer's policies for managing the prisoner were not inadequate.
  • The employer did not fail to ensure two officer/line of sight precautions were in place.

The court was also asked to consider the implications of surveillance suggesting Mr Corbin had overstated his condition. Despite this surveillance, the court accepted that the assault had caused cervical dystonia one of the symptoms of which is involuntary movements of the head.

Damages were notionally assessed at $625,951.60 inclusive of the no-fault benefits Mr Corbin had received from WorkCover.

Discussion

This case, along with a number of other recent decisions, highlights the difficulties claimants face in proving that third party assaults are reasonably foreseeable and preventable by employers. Quite often these assaults are random or involve determined individuals whose conduct is not easily controlled.