A plaintiff failed to recover damages in negligence from his defendant employer for injuries sustained after slipping and falling down a set of steps within the workplace, after the Queensland District Court found the plaintiff was unable to satisfy the burden of proof as to causation of the incident and any negligence by the defendant.
The Court was required to consider:
- what caused the plaintiff’s slip and fall;
- whether the plaintiff’s slip and fall was caused by any negligence of the defendant; and
- whether the plaintiff was contributorily negligent
The plaintiff was employed to work on the blooding floor in the defendant’s meatworks, being an area in which slaughtered cattle are transported by hooks and drained of blood, with the floor of the room pooling in blood.
The plaintiff alleged that after finishing a shift, he exited the blooding floor via a set of steps whereupon he slipped and fell backwards, resulting in a broken rib and soft tissue injury.
The plaintiff alleged that the defendant failed in its duties to maintain a safe workplace by not cleaning the floors near the steps adequately to remove blood, and by not providing adequate facilities for employees to clean their equipment of blood before descending the steps. The plaintiff alleged that this resulted in circumstances in which the floor and/or his boots were slippery due to congealed blood, causing his slip and fall.
The defendant denied the slip and fall was caused by any negligence, and further argued that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by his own negligence in failing to hold the provided handrail in accordance with employee training. The defendant also denied the plaintiff suffered any ongoing incapacity as a consequence of the injuries.
The decision at trial
The Court considered common law principles of negligence and as set out in the Workers’ Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (Qld) (WCRA). These include the general principles of s305B, providing that a person does not breach a duty to take precautions against a risk of injury to a worker unless (a) the risk was foreseeable (b) the risk was not insignificant and (c) in the circumstances, a reasonable person in the position of the person would have taken the precautions. The Court also had regard to section 305D of the WCRA, which requires that for a breach to be causative of an injury, it must be a necessary condition to the occurrence of an injury. The Court noted that the onus of proof, pursuant to section 305E of the WCRA, fell on the plaintiff.
On the issue of what caused the incident, the Court considered the plaintiff’s evidence of congealed blood on the floor and on his boots, against the conflicting evidence of the defendant that there would not have been any significant amount of blood on the steps, any such blood would not have been slippery, there were no defects with the stairs, and there was no history of slip incidents. The Court also noted that there was no expert evidence as to the slip rating of the steps or the slipperiness of blood. The Court held it was ultimately unclear what caused the plaintiff’s slip and fall and in the absence of any other determinative explanation, concluded that the plaintiff merely misplaced his foot onto the edge (rather than the floor) of the steps, which was an unfortunate accident not caused by any defect of the steps, nor by any blood built up in the tread of his boots or on the floor.
The Court concluded that there was not a foreseeable risk of a worker slipping on the steps, given the precautions that the defendant had taken to avoid or minimise a risk that might otherwise have existed, including non-slip flooring, having and instructing on the use of a handrail, facilities for employees to rinse aprons and boots, and regular safety inspections. Having regard to section 305C of the WCRA, the Court concluded that the defendant subsequently installing metal capping on the step edges did not demonstrate negligence for not having done so earlier and if anything, demonstrated that it undertook safety inspections and made ongoing improvements when it considered it appropriate. The Court also held there was no evidence demonstrating whether any particular alternative precautions would or would not have avoided the plaintiff’s fall.
The Court held that if there was a reasonably foreseeable risk, it was not significant, noting the absence of any history of slip incidents, the non-slip flooring and the obvious handrail.
Lastly, the Court went on to consider that if the defendant were liable for damages, there would be a finding of contributory negligence by the plaintiff. This was based on a conclusion that the plaintiff was capable of carrying his equipment with one hand, whilst holding the rail with the other, his failure to do so being a considerable factor leading to the incident. Whilst ultimately accepting the defendant’s assessment of 30%, the Court indicated that it would have assessed this at 50%.
Implications for you
This case provides a timely reminder of the onus of proof which lies with plaintiffs, and that 'the law does not authorise a court to choose between guesses'.
This case also demonstrates the possibility of a court making a substantial reduction for contributory negligence, notwithstanding the plaintiff’s evidence that he was never trained or instructed as to using the handrail, that he was unable to hold the rail as he was carrying his equipment, and was engaged in / concentrating on the task at hand.