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Can an employer be held liable for a workplace assault?

An employee being attacked at work can be very serious, especially for those who regularly come into contact with disgruntled or hostile members of the public, working in healthcare, security, hospitality, emergency and law enforcement.

If a worker is assaulted at work, the employer may be liable if:

  • the incident occurred in the course of the worker’s employment;
  • the assault was foreseeable;
  • the employer did not take appropriate preventative measures and that failure caused the injury.

This article examines these issues by reviewing a recent case where a Prison Officer was assaulted by a prisoner (Corbin v State of Queensland [2019] QSC 110).

The case

In October 2013, Mr Corbin, a Prison Officer working at Wolston Correctional Centre was assaulted by a prisoner. The incident occurred when Mr Corbin confronted the prisoner about breaching a prison rule and the prisoner retaliated by hitting Mr Corbin.

Mr Corbin sought damages against his employer by arguing that Queensland Corrective Services (QCS) failed to take reasonable measures to protect him from the foreseeable risk of harm posed by the prisoner. Mr Corbin claimed the assault would have been prevented if QCS had managed the prisoner under an Intensive Management Plan or ensured two prison officers were present.

At the time of the assault, the officer on duty with Mr Corbin had left the area at the time Mr Corbin approached the prisoner to reprimand him for breaking the no smoking rule.

Mr Corbin argued that QCS failed to inform him (and other officers) of the prisoner’s violent history. Had he known of the prisoner’s history of threatening and verbally abusive behaviour towards prison officers, he would not have approached the prisoner on his own.

The case hinged on whether QCS should have implemented an Intensive Management Plan for the prisoner.

Intensive Management Plans were implemented for prisoners who were identified as requiring “a higher level of supervision and/or case management and/or intervention strategies than provided through standard prison management processes.”

QCS argued there was nothing remarkable about the prisoner which required him to be managed differently.

Assessing the evidence

The Court considered evidence from prison general managers and supervisors and sought expert opinions from prison management consultants.

The Court found the level of violence from the prisoner was foreseeable. However, for Mr Corbin’s claim to be successful, he needed to prove QCS unreasonably failed to take precautions against the risk of assault and that failure led to the assault.

Despite finding the prisoner to be anti-social and belligerent with officers, he was only a little more difficult than average. While he posed a higher risk of violence than the stereotypical protection prisoner, it was not to the extent he was required to be managed by an Intensive Management Plan.

Even if it was found otherwise, the Court did not accept that counselling under an Intensive Management Plan would have prevented the attack.

The Court found the prisoner was not deterred by his knowledge that he would have been punished for his actions and he was not deterred when the second officer returned to the detention unit, to prevent the assault. The Court was also not persuaded that Mr Corbin would have acted differently if the prisoner was subject to an Intensive Management Plan.

Mr Corbin failed in his claim.

Key tips for employers

While the Court accepted the assault could not have been prevented by any further action by the employer, this is not always the case. Employers should take reasonable actions to ensure a safe system of work is in place to avoid the risk of violence and injury, including:

  • identifying aggressive behaviour as early as possible;
  • ensuring appropriate training (and reinforcement of that training) is provided to prevent and manage violent situations; and
  • if an incident occurs, be sure to take appropriate measures to minimise similar risks in future.

Article by Cameron Seymour (Partner) and Nadine Wardell (Solicitor).

"The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication."