Oxenham v Protector Aluminium P/L  QDC 312 is a recent decision of the District Court of Queensland that illustrates that even where a duty is owed by an employer to take reasonable care not to expose an employee to unnecessary risks of injury, a Plaintiff must actually prove factual causation that such breach of duty was the cause of injury.
The Plaintiff was employed by the Defendant and suffered from a workplace injury following a slip from the water under the sole of his work boots, when undertaking a manoeuvre in the toilet cubicle to obtain a toilet roll from a nearby sink. The Plaintiff alleged that the presence of water under his boots was due to the leaking fridge where he obtained his drink. He pursued a claim for a breach of contract in relation to an implied term of the employment contract obliging the Defendant to take all reasonable steps to avoid foreseeable risk of injury.
Justice Long held that the defendant employer did owe the plaintiff a non-delegable duty to take reasonable measures to protect the Plaintiff from the dangers of his tasks and to take reasonable care to avoid exposing him to unnecessary risks of injury.
The issues before His Honour were whether the Plaintiff had established on the balance of probabilities that the defendant:
- Breached the duty owed to him; and
- Caused the Plaintiff to suffer injuries in which damages were sought.
Consideration was given to the General Principles in s 305B and s 305C of the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) (WCRA)
305B General principles
(1) A person does not breach a duty to take precautions against a risk of injury to a worker unless—
- the risk was foreseeable (that is, it is a risk of which the person knew or ought reasonably to have known); and
- the risk was not insignificant; and
- in the circumstances, a reasonable person in the position of the person would have taken the precautions.
(2) In deciding whether a reasonable person would have taken precautions against a risk of injury, the court is to consider the following (among other relevant things)—
- the probability that the injury would occur if care were not taken;
- the likely seriousness of the injury;
- the burden of taking precautions to avoid the risk of injury.
305C Other principles
In a proceeding relating to liability for a breach of duty—
- the burden of taking precautions to avoid a risk of injury includes the burden of taking precautions to avoid similar risks of injury for which the person may be responsible; and
- the fact that a risk of injury could have been avoided by doing something in a different way does not of itself give rise to or affect liability for the way in which the thing was done; and
- the subsequent taking of action that would (had the action been taken earlier) have avoided a risk of injury does not of itself give rise to or affect liability in relation to the risk and does not of itself constitute an admission of liability in connection with the risk.
His Honour concluded that a breach of the defendant’s duty of care had been established, accepting the evidence that the defendant allowed a situation to continue, and inappropriately addressed the situation by allowing the water to leak and spread onto the tiled floor, which presented a risk of slippage.
In respect of the requirements of s 305B of the WCRA, His Honour found that the risk of someone slipping and suffering injury was foreseeable, that such risk was both real and not insignificant, and that a reasonable employer would have taken precaution given the nature of the expedient and inexpensive solution of fixing the fridge seal.
However, the Judge concluded that the Plaintiff’s case failed to establish causation under s 305D of WCRA:
305D General principles
(1) A decision that a breach of duty caused particular injury comprises the following elements—
(a) the breach of duty was a necessary condition of the occurrence of the injury (factual causation).
The concession made by the Plaintiff that he had not noticed his relatively new boots slipping on the tiled surface as he travelled the approximate distance of 6 metres to the toilet outlined impossibility of factual causation, that the Plaintiff fell and was injured in the toilet cubicle due to the remaining presence of at least some of that water on the sole of his boot.
This case demonstrates the critical importance for a Plaintiff to prove factual causation for an injury. Despite a finding that the employer owed a duty of care not to expose the Plaintiff to unnecessary risk of harm in the workplace, and subsequently breached that duty, the courts will not act favourably towards a Plaintiff where they cannot establish that the breach was a necessary condition of the occurrence of their injury.