It is well established that an employer owes to its staff a duty of care to ensure their health & safety. However, to prevent undue burden, section 305B(1) of the Workers Compensation & Rehabilitation Act 2003 (‘the Act’) sets out that an employer is only found to have breached this standard of care in circumstances where any precautions to prevent the injuries are considered “reasonable” in the circumstances.
This question as to whether a proposed precaution to prevent injury is “reasonable” in the circumstances is often a subject of great dispute amongst the Courts and most recently in the Queensland Supreme Court of Appeal. Section 305B (2) of the Act seeks to provide some clarification of the factors which ought to be taken into account in determining this question:
“In deciding whether a reasonable person would have taken precautions against a risk of injury, the court is to consider the following (among other relevant things) –
- the probability that the injury would occur if care were not taken;
- the likely seriousness of the injury;
- The burden of taking precautions to avoid the risk of injury.”
State of Queensland v Ringuet
In this case, Ms Ringuet was employed as a nurse in a mental health unit at a hospital operated by the State of Queensland. On the morning of one of her shifts, she was working in the Acute Young Adult Mental Health Unit in which there was a secure area called the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (“the PICU”). As she opened the door to the PICU, a young male patient rushed to the door and attempted to escape.
In a struggle that lasted approximately 40 seconds, Ms Ringuet managed to push back against the door with all her strength to prevent his escape, before she was assisted by other nursing staff and the patient was subdued. The patient was known to the staff as having attempted escape twice in the days preceding the incident and it was known he had a frustration about his hospitalization and involuntary treatment. Ms Ringuet was carrying a duress alarm device however she was unable to reach this while she was straining to prevent the Patient’s escape.
She sustained a back injury and a consequential psychiatric injury. She claimed damages for breach of contract of employment and negligence.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeal held that the State of Queensland, as owner of the hospital, was negligent. The trial judge concluded, as upheld by the Court of Appeal, that because the Patient was a known flight risk, staff ought to have been instructed to call for one of the hospital security staff prior to using the door. This would not require a security officer being present at the PICU entrance 24/7 (as this would have been an unreasonable precaution in the circumstances) but only during times where the Patient was known present in the communal area close to the entrance.
The decision of the Court, in articulating the precautions that ought to have been taken, is best articulated in paragraph 194 of the trial judge’s decision:
“Upon this analysis, I am satisfied that there was a reasonable and practical precaution available to the defendant to reduce the risk in this case. I find that the defendant ought to have implemented a system in which a security officer was to be called to attend the PICU to assist nursing staff to make safe access to the unit on the occasions where at the time the nurse needed to enter the PICU, the Patient was observed [whether in a calm or agitated state] to be in the communal area of the PICU…”
This approach was favored over other proposed precautions such as ensuring a “strong male” staff member was always with a nurse prior to opening the door.
The claimant received $326,312.75 by way of damages.
 S 19 WHSA; s 305B(1).
 State of Queensland v Ringuet 2020 QCA 61, .