The Facts

Police officer attends motor vehicle accident

A Queensland police officer attended a motor vehicle accident in 2013 involving a car driver who was speeding and intoxicated with amphetamines and cannabis at the time of the collision.

The policeman attended the scene and tried to keep the driver alive with first aid and encouragement. He was the first officer on the scene, having arrived earlier than the ambulance paramedics and the fire brigade.

The police officer had to deal with the arrival of the driver's parents at the scene of the accident and had to indicate to them that their son would not survive. The driver's parents had to say goodbye to him at the accident scene.

The fact of having to deal with the driver's parents added an extra level of trauma for the policeman, over and above the trauma of dealing with the driver's injuries, which proved to be fatal.

Policeman develops PTSD and makes claim for damages

The police officer developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he witnessed at the motor vehicle accident scene. He made a claim under Queensland's Motor Accident Insurance Act for psychiatric injuries that he sustained while dealing with the horrific circumstances of the accident and the parents of the driver.

The insurer denied liability for the claim and the matter proceeded for determination before the Queensland Supreme Court.

Case a - The case for the insurer

Case b - The case for the police officer

  • The police officer claims that our insured, the deceased driver, was negligent and that this negligence caused him psychiatric injuries. For the claim to succeed, the officer needs to establish that the driver owed him a duty of care.
  • A police officer is bound by duty to attend at the scene of a motor accident and members of the public are entitled to expect that a police officer attending an accident will be sufficiently trained and experienced to avoid psychiatric harm.
  • For these reasons, the policeman's psychiatric injury was not reasonably foreseeable by the driver, so no duty of care on the part of the driver arises
  • Alternatively, any such foreseeable risk was slight and did not warrant the driver taking or avoiding any action for that reason.
  • The police officer was a mere bystander at the scene of the accident and only witnessed its aftermath. He did not witness the accident itself, nor was he personally involved in the events leading up to it, so he had no reason to blame himself for the events that took place.
  • Additionally, the police officer and the driver had no pre-existing relationship and were strangers to one another, so the officer had no particular connection to the driver.
  • The police officer cannot establish that the driver owed him a duty of care and his claim should therefore fail.
  • It was reasonably foreseeable that any police officer who attended the scene of the car accident caused by the driver's negligence would suffer a psychiatric injury.
  • I was not a mere "bystander" to the driver's death. I comforted him, I tried to comfort his parents and I assisted them to say a final farewell to their son. Then I watched him die.
  • I did everything I could to keep the driver alive – I cleared his airway, encouraged him and alerted the firefighters not to cut him from his vehicle until the paramedics arrived, to reduce the risk of a heart attack. My role was that of a "rescuer".
  • Even though as a police officer I was trained in employing techniques of emotional detachment to guard against psychiatric harm at scenes of trauma, my "armour" of detachment was pierced by the intense humanity of the situation.
  • It is unclear to me what I could have done differently or more safely to protect myself against psychiatric harm, given that I was in a highly pressurised situation at the scene of an emergency.
  • The driver owed me a duty of care and I should be compensated for the injuries that his negligence has caused me to suffer.

So, which case won?
Cast your judgment below to find out

Vote case A – the case for the insurer
Vote case B – the case for the police officer

Chris Clarke
Personal injury
Stacks Law Firm

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