All parties bear a risk when a matter is taken to trial. Each party believes the Court will accept their version but the final result can never please all parties. For every winner, there is a loser.
Legal principles are generally fairly well established. Personal injuries cases normally turn on particular facts and the interpretation of those so-called facts can be difficult to predict.
In the absence of reliable, contemporaneous documentary evidence, or video footage, witnesses are called to establish facts and their evidence may be inconsistent or contradictory.
So it was in the case of Healy v Logan City Council QDC 54, a District Court Decision handed down by Her Honour Sheridan DCJ on 16 April 2020.
The Plaintiff, Michelle Healy, was a cleaner working for Logan City Council. Her case was that she was required to clean rubbish left in the grandstand of the Logan Metro Indoor Sports Centre, after a major event. Her cleaning duties involved using a squeegee to drag rubbish left by patrons along the footwells to be collected in the aisles.
Ms Healy was standing on, and walking along, the plastic seats, when she slipped, fell and suffered injury.
Ms Healy alleged that the seats were slippery; she had not been instructed not to walk on the seats; she had to work at a fast pace; and her employer had not undertaken a risk assessment of the task, which would have revealed the seats were slippery and rubbish would not have accumulated in the footwells if bins were available in the aisles.
There were aspects of Ms Healy’s claim that are common to most worker/employer personal injury claims: lack of a risk assessment, time pressure, and failure to induct, train, instruct and supervise.
Contemporaneous documentation is often very helpful in allowing a Court to determine which witnesses’ versions should be preferred. In this case there was no documented risk assessment or written instruction not to stand on the plastic seats. However in this particular case, that did not prevent the Employer successfully defending the claim.
The Court’s Findings
The Court accepted the Employer’s witnesses on the following evidence:-
- Ms Healy fell because she tripped while attempting to step over a plastic seat while she was walking on the seats down the grandstand;
- Ms Healy had been specifically verbally directed not to stand on the seats;
- in performing her cleaning duties, it would not have made any sense to stand on the plastic seats to make them dirty, after standing in the wet and dry rubbish in the footwells;
- it was obvious to anyone, including Ms Healy, that the plastic steps could be slippery; and
- Ms Healy had been inducted, trained, instructed and supervised.
The Court found that a lack of a documented risk assessment did not cause Ms Healy’s injury because:-
- it would not have recommended bins be placed in the aisle to avoid rubbish accumulating in the footwells, because the bins would have impeded pedestrian traffic; and
- a risk assessment would have found the plastic seats were slippery and should not be stood upon, but an appropriate warning and instruction had already been given to that effect to Ms Healy.
Ultimately, the Court found the Employer had taken all reasonable steps and that any additional steps alleged by Ms Healy would not have reduced the risk of her injury. It was simply a matter of Ms Healy failing to abide by a reasonable and clear instruction in circumstances where she herself should have appreciated the risk of breaching that instruction.
The Court may have been assisted in its findings by forming a view of Ms Healy’s credit as a witness. Ms Healy gave evidence to the effect that no one assisted her after her fall, which appears to have been given to paint the Employer in a bad light. That evidence was contradicted by witnesses who said they immediately came to her aid.
This case is not a helpful precedent per se, because depending on all the circumstances of a particular case, a cleaner may win their case if they slip off a plastic seat in a grandstand. What the case does demonstrate however is that all evidence, whether it be documentary, verbal or otherwise, must be carefully assessed and each party must understand that evidence will be ruled upon by an independent Judge who will form their own view on which version to prefer.