The Supreme Court of Queensland has awarded a former police officer damages totalling more than $1 million for pure psychiatric injury arising from his attendance at, and involvement in, the aftermath of a fatal motor vehicle accident.
The Court was asked to determine whether, as a matter of law, a duty of care is owed to a police officer, acting in the course of their duties, by the driver of a motor vehicle, in respect of psychiatric injury suffered by the police officer as a consequence of the driver’s negligence.
On 17 February 2013 Byron Williams (Williams) was killed when he drove his vehicle into a tree at Hennessy Hill, Queensland.
The plaintiff was on duty at the time, and received a call from a member of the public informing him of the accident.
The plaintiff attended the scene of the accident to find Williams’ vehicle wrapped around a tree. Williams was alive, but catastrophically injured. Neither the ambulance nor the fire brigade were on scene.
The plaintiff sought to maximise Williams’ chances of survival by moving his head to clear his airway and trying to encourage him to stay alive, however, he died at the scene. The plaintiff’s experience was made particularly traumatic by the presence of the dying man’s parents at the scene.
Following this event, the plaintiff decompensated and was dismissed from the Queensland Police Service on medical grounds.
The decision at trial
Acknowledging the slow and steady progression from the once strict limitation on liability for psychiatric harm, to the current state of the law, Flanagan J identified and addressed a number of key factors relevant to determining whether a duty of care was owed.
His Honour found that the plaintiff (a police officer) fell within the broad category of ‘rescuers’, being an accepted a category of persons who will generally be owed a duty of care.
Against that background the central enquiry was whether a reasonable person in Williams’ position would have foreseen that a person in the position of the plaintiff, a serving police officer attending a motor vehicle accident of the kind that might result from Williams’ negligence, might suffer recognisable psychiatric injury as a result of his experiences at the scene. Adopting the words of Mason J in FAI General Insurance Co Ltd v Lucre, Flanagan J found that ‘one does not need to be a psychiatrist to understand the reality of the (plaintiff’s) reaction’. It was reasonably foreseeable.
Flanagan J observed that the old requirement of ‘direct perception’ had more or less fallen away. His Honour noted that it has been settled law in this country for over two decades that any ‘direct perception’ requirement will be satisfied by a plaintiff who views either the accident as it occurs or its immediate aftermath, and that the concept of the aftermath is not to be viewed narrowly.
Furthermore, His Honour confirmed that it is no longer a requirement that the plaintiff have any special relationship to the victim.
A number of policy arguments were raised by the defendant as reasons for precluding a duty of care being owed to the plaintiff. Amongst them were inconsistency with the statutory scheme for provision of police services, public expectation of police resilience and unjustifiable expansion of liability. Each was rejected by Flannagan J.
Implications for you
This decision is a significant step in the evolution of liability for pure psychiatric harm and follows the trend of expanding liability for psychiatric injuries.
Moreover this decision, if not overturned on appeal, may create a precedent which facilitates recovery of damages for pure psychiatric harm, arising in the context of motor vehicle accidents, for a broad group of emergency service personnel.