Difficulty in proving causation

Prasad v Ingham’s Enterprises Pty Ltd [2016] QCA 147 is a recent decision of the Queensland Court of Appeal relating to the extent of an employer’s liability for a workplace injury.

The appellant in this case, joins a long line of other personal injury claimants who are able to establish their employee breached its duty of care but falter at proving a link between that breach and their injury. It is not enough to prove that the measures a defendant failed to adopt may have prevented the complainant’s injury. The test is much higher than this and requires that the injury would have been prevented or minimised.

Background

The applicant was employed at the respondent’s chicken processing plant at Murarrie in Queensland from 1994-1997 and again in 2000. The appellant main task was packing chicken pieces into plastic trays. The area where the appellant worked was cooled at 13 degrees celsius and had a concrete floor. The appellant spent 90% of her time working on the concrete floor. Rubber mats were placed on the concrete floors but were removed in 2006 for health and safety reasons. The appellant wore rubber boots as part of her uniform.

In March 2010, the appellant reported that she was suffering from pain in her feet and swollen and red heels. The appellant sought medical evidence from various health professionals. She was transferred to light duties when her feet became too sore to perform her usual duties. In June 2010, her employment was terminated.

The appellant later received four treatments for both her heels in hospital. Her condition improved and she resumed part time employment with another employer. The appellant commenced proceedings in 2011 alleging that the respondent’s negligence had caused her to develop plantar fasciitis.

The trial decision

The trial judge held that the removal of the mats and a failure to undertake a risk assessment did not constitute negligence on the part of the respondent.

Issue on appeal

Whether the trial judge had erred in not finding that the respondent had breached its duty and that based on the medical evidence, there was no causation.

Decision of the Court of Appeal

Breach

In determining whether the respondent had breached its duty of care, the Court considered whether the replacement of the rubber mats, or other measures would have either prevented or minimised the appellant’s injury. The Court held that the respondent’s failure to undertake a risk assessment on the removal of the mats was a breach of its duty of care. If the respondent’s had done a risk assessment, the exercise of reasonable care would have required them to implement other measures including anti-fatigue matting for workers.

Causation

The difficulty for the appellant was that in order to establish causation, she had to prove on the balance of probabilities that the measures the respondent failed to adopt would have prevented or minimised her injuries. That is, the cause of the injury had to be more than a ‘mere existence of an association between the respondent’s breach and the occurrence of her condition’. The Court concluded that the expert evidence was that the measure the respondent failed to adopt may have lowered the appellant’s risk of plantar fasciitis, however none of the experts could confirm that such measures would have prevented her condition. On this basis, the appellant was unable to prove that the respondent’s negligence had caused her injury.

Lessons

The key lesson from this decision is that there is a high threshold to proving that a defendant’s negligence caused the appellant’s injury. The test is not whether the injury may have been prevented; rather it requires that the injury would have been prevented or minimised.

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