Australia: Back to basics – assaults in the workplace and the importance of having a reliable witness - Australian legal update

This article explores the case of Eastment v State of Queensland [2017] QDC 201, which centers on an assault in the workplace and also highlights the importance of having a reliable witness at trial.

The Plaintiff, Mr Eastment was employed at the Maryborough Correctional Centre as a custodial corrections officer. On 8 March 2009, Mr Eastment and a co-worker were asked by a prisoner to unlock the supply cupboard in the laundry so the prisoner could get some sugar. Mr Eastment's co-worker entered the laundry; at this point Prisoner X then walked past Mr Eastment into the laundry and commenced punching Mr Eastment's co-worker. Mr Eastment attempted to intervene in the assault; as he did so, Prisoner X turned his attention to Mr Eastment and began striking Mr Eastment with a closed fist.

Mr Eastment's case is predicated on the occurrence of an event on 6 March 2009 (two days prior to the assault). It was alleged by Mr Eastment that during a committal hearing on 6 March 2009, Prisoner X was aggressive, threatening and agitated towards another officer, being Officer Linnenlucke. Mr Eastment alleged:

  1. Officer Linnenlucke had witnessed Prisoner X's behaviour at the committal hearing;
  2. Officer Linnenlucke imparted that information to other officers, including the Assistant General Manager of the Centre; and
  3. Further action should have been taken in response to Officer Linnenlucke's information.

Mr Eastment alleged that had the concerns of Officer Linnenlucke been conveyed to him, he is likely to have approached the management of Prisoner X differently.

Regarding Officer Linnenlucke's account of Prisoner X's behaviour at the committal hearing, the Court had the benefit of an audio recording of the committal hearing. There was no yelling or threats by Prisoner X on the audio recording. Although Mr Eastment alleged that Prisoner X's behaviour may not have been captured by the audio, the Court did not accept this. In making this decision the Court noted Officer Linnenlucke's previous history of reporting even the most trivial of incidents in the prison incident reporting system. Given this, the Court held on balance, that if Officer Linnenlucke had reported or had held genuine concerns about her safety, or the safety of other officers, she would have reported it. The Court held that Officer Linnenlucke's failure to report her concerns was not borne out of negligence, inadvertedness or carelessness, rather, it was because there an absence of observable agitation by Prisoner X.

In addition to the Court's findings regarding Officer Linnenlucke's evidence, they noted that Mr Hunter, the corrections officer who escorted Prisoner X to and from the committal hearing did not observe Prisoner X displaying any signs of agitation or aggression. Similarly, in his assessment of Prisoner X upon his report to the correction facility, Mr Smith, Welfare Officer, did not recall anything remarkable or extreme about Prisoner X's behaviour.

Ultimately, this led the Court to finding that there was no aggressive, threatening or agitated behaviour by Prisoner X at the hearing on 6 March 2009, sufficient to give notice that an assault by Prisoner X was imminent. Following from this, the Court held that as such, there was no heightened need for reporting. The Court further held that the system of work in place at the prison, being extensive and continual training on officer safety and recording of threats, constant monitoring of relevant areas by CCTV and detailed prisoner assessments constituted a safe system of work and was a reasonable response to the general risk associated with prisoner violence.

Lastly, the Court considered causation. That is, if indeed Prisoner X had been displaying agitated behaviour on 6 March 2009, would the reporting of this have prevented or minimised the injury to Mr Eastman. Mr Eastman submitted that had he known about Prisoner X's agitation, he would have intervened before Prisoner X got to the laundry. The Court held that this would not have prevented or minimised the injury as such an intervention would have probably caused Mr Eastman to be assaulted at the time he sought to intervene.

Mr Eastman's case was dismissed.

Practical Ramifications

This case is consistent with earlier cases in which Plaintiffs have been unsuccessful in establishing negligence for workplace assaults. This case illustrates the difficulty for a plaintiff in these types of cases. To succeed, a plaintiff needs to establish:

  • That the employer was on notice that a particular co-worker, member of the public or someone under their care (in this case, a prisoner) was prone to aggressive conduct and outbursts. Knowledge is always a critical issue of evidence in these types of cases.
  • Assuming some knowledge is established, the plaintiff then needs to establish that more could and should have been done to manage tisk of an assault (breach of duty).
  • Importantly, even if breach can be established, the Plaintiff needs to prove that taking additional or alternative measures would have made a material difference for the outcome (causation). Causation is a significant hurdle as assaults are often, by nature, random and spontaneous.

It was on issues of both breach and causation that the Plaintiff failed in this matter.

The matter of Easement is currently before the Queensland Court of Appeal.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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