Why are damages sofa apart?

04 May 2021

The Plaintiff alleged that he injured his back whilst moving a large sofa which subsequently led to him suffering a serious psychiatric illness. Although the parties agreed that the Plaintiff was entitled to damages, their respective assessments differed significantly.

In Issue

  • The central issue before the court was the allowance to be made for the possibility that the Plaintiff might have suffered some other injury or incident in his life which might have caused him to become as psychiatrically compromised as he is now (even in the absence of the incident).

The background

The Plaintiff was employed by the Defendant furniture retailer and his duties involved moving large items of furniture in the warehouse. On 26 September 2016, the Plaintiff sustained an injury to his back while attempting to move a large sofa. He alleged that this injury was the precursor to a serious disabling psychiatric illness, leaving him with a high need for care and medical treatment and effectively destroying his earning capacity.

The Plaintiff was approximately 31 years of age at the time of the incident, with a pre-existing history of psychiatric illness. He had been the victim of a malicious assault approximately 7 years prior to the incident. As a result, the Plaintiff had experienced suicidal ideations (although he alleged that his psychiatric condition was appropriately managed prior to the incident).

He alleged that the incident led to a psychiatric deterioration, and that he subsequently experienced further lasting suicidal ideations.

The Defendant alleged that an unrelated incident leading to the deterioration of the Plaintiff’s mental health would likely have occurred, in any event.

The decision at trial

At the hearing, the Defendant effectively abandoned its denial of liability (and the allegation of contributory negligence). As a result of the evidence presented, the Defendant also abandoned its denial of causation.

Therefore, the trial proceeded as an assessment of quantum only.

The Defendant contested the Plaintiff’s submission in relation to damages and proposed alternative schedules of damages (based on separate proposed life expectancies of the Plaintiff).

The court held that those who gave evidence in the Plaintiff’s case were honest, reliable and credible. It followed that the court accepted that the Plaintiff was functioning reasonably well in all aspects of his life prior to the incident. Accordingly, the court accepted that the back injury gave rise to sequence of events (and that this sequence of events was highly unlikely to have occurred but for the incident), and that the Plaintiff suffered significant psychiatric deterioration as a result of the incident.

The Plaintiff was awarded $5,624,298.00 in damages.

Implications for you

A court will invariably take into consideration the degree of probability that an event would have or might occur (or would not have or might not occur) and will adjust its award of damages to reflect the degree of that probability. When considering an event that “triggers” a pre-existing condition, it is important to remember that firm emphasis will be placed on the chance that the plaintiff would suffer this “trigger”, in any event. If there is only a small chance that this would have occurred in the absence of the wrongful act, lower reductions for vicissitudes would reflect this. The court’s decision in this case reflects the approach in another case, Anwar v Mondello Farms Pty Ltd [2015] SASCFC 109, where a substantial award of damages was awarded for a painful but minor injury that gave rise to significant psychiatric impairment. In both cases, the courts took the approach that the foreseeability of the psychiatric injury occurring irrespective of the incident is of less importance to the fact that the incident has caused the suffered psychiatric injuries.

Hauraki v Steinhoff Asia Pacific Limited t/a Freedom Furniture [2021] ACTSC 54

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