In the claim of Gray v Wagga Wagga City Council  NSWDC 108, the plaintiff failed to prove negligence against the Wagga Wagga City Council after an automatic door at an airport closed and struck her, injuring her neck, left shoulder and back.
On 21 September 2017, Ms Gray was accompanying her mother and aunt to Wagga Wagga for a funeral. After disembarking from the aircraft, Ms Gray assisted her ailing aunt to walk through the airport terminal to an airlocked area, where they would pass through a ‘gate’ to the public area of the terminal. That ‘gate’ consisted of an electronically operated automatic door. It had:
- a forward microwave sensor detecting approaching passengers causing the door to open
- photoelectric cells (PECS) on the frame on each side at a height of 600mm and 150mm, causing the door to remain open when the beam/circuit was broken by passengers walking through the door.
Ms Gray alleges that, while proceeding through the airlocked area and turned at a slight right angle assisting her aunt, she felt a jarring sensation on the upper part of her left arm. She claims she was unaware of the presence of the door until she turned around after being struck.
Allegations of negligence and evidence
Ms Gray alleged that the Council breached its duty of care by providing a malfunctioning door; failing to assess the risk of injury associated with the operation of the door; and failing to warn passengers of that risk.
The key evidence before the court was as follows:
- The PECS at 150mm were detected to be inoperative in June 2016. The Council was informed of the defect in each of the quarterly reviews thereafter by its contractor (and quotes provided for replacement), but the PECS were not replaced until early October 2017 (shortly after the accident).
- Mr Walsh, the contractor technician engaged to undertake quarterly inspection and maintenance of the autolock door, gave evidence that the then defective 150mm PECS were a failsafe and did not create a hazard to passengers traversing through the door. While testing the door after being told of the incident, he found that a person’s leg would still break the circuit at the 600mm PECS level, causing the door to remain open. No other expert evidence was proffered by either party as to the issue of malfunction of the door.
- Appropriate maintenance inspections and physical inspections of the doors occurred every morning before the airport opened. Further, there were no records of any other incident involving the subject door.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ADCJ M Sidis of the New South Wales District Court accepted that there was a foreseeable risk of not insignificant injury arising from the malfunction of the doors such that the Council would be expected to take precautions (i.e. safety features such as the PECS and regular inspection and maintenance).
However, the Court also accepted Mr Walsh’s evidence that the failure of the PECS was not causative of the accident. Accordingly, the risk arising from the malfunctioning door was found to have been appropriately managed by way of the regular and comprehensive maintenance routine and daily checks of the door. With respect to the allegation regarding failure to warn, the Court found that a warning was not warranted given the lack of prior incidents involving the door and the implemented inspection and maintenance system and daily checks of the door.
Accordingly, the Council successfully defended the claim and (assuming no alternative application for costs) Ms Gray was to pay the Council’s costs of the proceedings.
Take away point
In circumstances where specific allegations of malfunction or fault on the part of machinery or equipment are made, it must be proven that such fault caused the incident and, often, evidence will be essential from an appropriate expert (engineer etc.) before trial. It is not enough for an injured person seeking damages to point to a fault – they must go further and also prove that, had the fault been rectified, it is more likely than not that the incident would have been prevented.