Staying on the Tracks – Trains, Motor Vehicles, and Overcoming Limitation Periods

02 August 2021

Former NSW Fire Brigade officer exposed to a traumatic event in the line of duty 20 years ago. Sought to commence proceedings in negligence against the State but was confronted with the perennial problem of limitation periods. Curial consideration of the meaning of “vehicle” vis-à-vis trains, and the nature of psychological injury and its interaction with limitation periods. Ultimately, the plaintiff was granted leave to commence proceedings against the State.

In Issue

  • The plaintiff sought an order for the extension of the limitation period in relation to a personal injury sustained in a train accident. Two issues presented themselves at trial: firstly; which statutory regime governed the limitation question; and secondly; whether the plaintiff satisfied the necessary criteria to extend the limitation period.

The background

The plaintiff was a firefighter with the New South Wales Fire Brigade. In 2003, he attended a train derailment at Waterfall station, where several people had lost their lives and dozens were injured. At the scene, his work included the moving of bodies in and amongst fallen, but still live, power lines, in circumstances Acting Justice Schmidt described as “confronting”.

Following the incident, the plaintiff was essentially told to put the incident to the back of his mind. He sought no treatment and served as a firefighter for an additional 15 years. In 2018, when he attended a training course, he was exposed to images of the Waterfall incident, causing him to be completely and immediately overwhelmed, to such an extent that he has been unable to return to work. He was subsequently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The plaintiff consequently sought to bring an action in negligence against the State, but first had to overcome the fact that the limitation period for such cause of action had prima facie expired.

The decision at trial

The matter was heard by Schmidt AJ. The first issue was in relation to which regime governed the limitation period for the cause of action. An argument was advanced by the defendant that the incident should be dealt with pursuant to the Motor Accidents Compensation Act 1999 (MACA) thereby rendering a limitation period of three years. Such an argument required consideration of the term “motor vehicle” – the MACA defined this as “a motor vehicle or trailer within the meaning of the Road Transport Act 2013”, which in turn, defines a motor vehicle as “a vehicle that is built to be propelled by a motor that forms part of the vehicle”.

However, the definition in the Road Transport Act 2013 also specifically excludes vehicles used on railways – such as trains. A question of legislative intention therefore arose. Her Honour considered section 121 of the Transport Administration Act 1988, which adopts aspects of the MACA in respect of awards of damages but not the provisions in relation to limitation periods.

Given all of this, her Honour found that in order to achieve the statutory intention of the MACA, a train must not be considered a “motor vehicle” within the meaning of the MACA. This further explained the need for the Transport Administration Act 1998 to extend the MACA regime to public transport.

Consequently, the limitation period for Mr Watson’s cause of action was governed by the Limitation Act 1969. Two limitation periods are applicable: a period of three years following the date at which the cause of action is discoverable, and a long-stop period of twelve years. A cause of action is discoverable when a plaintiff is provided with legal advice to establish that the injury was caused by the fault of the relevant defendant and that that the injury was sufficiently serious for an award of damages to be made for that cause of action.

Her Honour noted that the psychiatric evidence pointed to the fact that the plaintiff had experienced an onset of PTSD in September 2018, and had not received legal advice relating to the claim until October 2020. Consequently, the date of discoverability was held to be October 2020 and the three-year limitation period had therefore not expired. Further, her Honour indicated that if an extension of the long-stop limitation period was required, it would have been granted, but in her opinion, it had not yet expired as the date of injury was in September 2018.

Implications for you

This case provides insight into the intricacies of statutory definitions and the somewhat perplexing nature of limitation periods. As precedent, this case has value in both dealing with position of trains under the MACA, but also as an example of how limitation periods can be significantly extended in the case of late on-set of psychological injuries.

Watson v State of New South Wales [2021] NSWSC 765

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