HR Lessons from the ‘walking backwards’ case

by Josh Gliddon19 Feb 2014
The recent verdict by the Queensland Court of Appeal to overturn a decision to award a manager $370k for injuring herself walking backwards has reinforced the employer’s right to give reasonable instructions to employees regarding OH&S issues. 
 
The payout
Christine Anne Weaver was 49 and working at Endeavour Foundation, a disability services provider, at the time of the injury.
 
She was providing training to staff to deal with aggressive people and suffered the injury in 2008 when she was demonstrating the “back steps” manoeuvre. The injury to her lower back, tailbone and hips also brought on a major depressive disorder.
 
The manager sued Endeavour Foundation for negligence, making the case that they did not take reasonable steps to ensure she would be safe from injury.
 
She argued she was required to perform the manoeuvre too quickly which put her in an unreasonable and risky situation. The Supreme Court of Queensland found in her favour and awarded her $369,000.
 
Endeavour Foundation breached its duty of care by “directing a middle-aged … overweight lady to walk backwards on the balls of her feet while keeping her attention directed not where she was going but to the ‘aggressor’ in front of her,” said Justice McMeekin.
 
The appeal
However, Endeavour Foundation appealed to the Queensland Court of Appeal and claimed that the manual did not say to “move quickly” in absolute terms.
 
They said the direction provided was to move more quickly as you become more practiced and then to move “as quickly as possible”.
 
The $369,000 damages claim was overturned, as Justice Holmes found in favour of the Endeavour Foundation.
 
“In this instance, the instruction to move as quickly as possible was a reasonable one,” said Holmes.
 
Key HR Takeaways
  • Be meticulous in finding and eliminating any threats to the health and safety of employees.
  • Follow the rule that it’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. The costs associated with payouts can be huge. Had Endeavour Foundation not appealed they would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Verify training programs have specific and detailed instructions which don’t put employees at risk of injuring themselves. Avoid anything that could be considered ambiguous.    
  • Make sure employees who are teaching training programs which involve physical activity have the appropriate fitness to do so.
 

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