Confirmed by Court of Appeal – no negligence in welfare management of emergency services worker on night of catastrophic fire

Confirmed by Court of Appeal – no negligence in welfare management of emergency services worker on night of catastrophic fire

01 October 2021 Authored by: Rebecca Cunningham   |   Topics: Insurance, Workers’ compensation, Self-insurance

In Giles v State of Queensland [2021] QCA 206, the Queensland Court of Appeal confirmed the District Court’s decision that the State was not negligent in its management and welfare checking of an injured worker during his attendance at a catastrophic fire.

Facts

The appellant, Peter Giles, had been employed as a firefighter with the Queensland Fire and Rescue Services (QFRS) for 27 years.

In August 2011, Mr Giles was working as a pump operator to help fight a particularly large house fire in Slacks Creek where, tragically, many lives were lost. It was described as Australia’s worst house fire.

As a result of his attendance at the fire, Mr Giles developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The District Court’s decision

The key issue was whether QFRS was negligent in its management of Mr Giles at the fire, and whether any such negligence caused his PTSD.

Mr Giles’ claim failed in the District Court. Judge Reid concluded:

  • QFRS provided sufficient welfare checks and, in doing so, had reasonably managed Mr Giles’ work duties while engaged in fighting the fire
  • QFRS’s (deliberate) decision that night to not rotate workers on site, with a view to limiting the number of personnel exposed to the catastrophic scene, was reasonable and appropriate
  • rotating Mr Giles after about 3-4 hours was not, on balance, a necessary precaution and, regardless, would not have prevented him from developing PTSD.

Click here to read more about the District Court’s decision in our previous article.

The Court of Appeal’s decision

Mr Giles appealed to the Court of Appeal against the judgment of the District Court, and the Court of Appeal confirmed the District Court’s decision that QFRS was not negligent.

The Court of Appeal held as follows:

  • QFRS had responsibilities to others, not just Mr Giles. There was ‘at least the same magnitude of risk of harm’ to a new crew arriving at the scene as there was to Mr Giles in remaining there. In balancing those risks, the deliberate decision by QFRS not to rotate the crews was a reasonable one.
  • There are no medical studies to suggest that emergency services personnel were more likely to develop PTSD if exposed to a traumatic event for 8-9 hours instead of 3-4. (By comparison, there were studies to suggest that exposure to traumatic events for more than 200 days increased the likelihood of PTSD developing.) Therefore, even if QFRS had taken the additional precaution of relieving Mr Giles after three or four hours, the evidence did not establish that Mr Giles would not have suffered the PTSD, or even that the PTSD would have been minimised.
  • Similarly, even if QFRS officers had made further enquiries as to the welfare of Mr Giles at the scene during the course of the incident, the evidence did not demonstrate that, more probably than not, his risk of developing PTSD would have been identified or preventable.

Comment

As noted in our previous article about this matter, emergency services personnel often find themselves working in highly dangerous and traumatic circumstances.

However, this matter (and particularly this Court of Appeal decision) serves as another reminder that successful plaintiffs must prove, on the balance of probabilities, that:

  • a reasonable employer ought to have taken further precautions; and
  • those further precautions would have prevented the injury (or, at the very least, minimised it).

Unfortunately here, for Mr Giles, he was unable to do either.

For further information on this topic, contact Cooper Grace Ward’s workers’ compensation team.

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