3 min read

Employer liable for vulnerable worker’s trauma, court rules

A jewellery retailer has been ordered to pay a worker $270,000 in damages, after a failed snatch and grab attempt left her with a psychiatric injury.

The District Court of Queensland found Michael Hill Jeweller negligent for failing to provide a safe system of work or adequate training to the worker, which led to the attempted robbery.

Incident waiting to happen

The attempted robbery took place at the Michael Hill branch at Westfield Helensvale on the Gold Coast. A man had entered the shop to view a gold necklace in a display cabinet.

The sales assistant advised him the necklace was almost $13,000. He then asked if that was the best price. The worker removed the necklace from the cabinet to scan it and told the man she could sell it to him for $7,900.

The man then asked if he could feel the weight of the necklace. The worker requested to see his driver’s licence first. While pretending to reach for his wallet, the man reached over the counter and tried to snatch the necklace.

He failed to pry the necklace from the worker’s hands and ran off.

The “shocked” worker suffered a bleeding hand and “became nervous and anxious” which led to her developing panic attacks and psychiatric injury.

She told the court that the employer had been negligent as it had failed to provide a safe system of work, failed to carry out appropriate risk assessments and failed to adequately train its staff – including herself – which led to the robbery attempt and her resulting injury.

The shop was open to a public foyer area within the shopping centre; it had no doors, no security guard and no signs on display to warn about CCTV surveillance. Also, the worker could not determine the cost price of expensive items without removing them from the display cabinet.

Employer blames worker

The employer denied liability for the incident, arguing that the worker removing the chain when asked for the best price was not in accordance with her training. She should have instead engaged with the customer first to determine if he was interested in the item before negotiating a price, it argued.

The employer also submitted that the incident didn’t cause the worker’s psychiatric injury, but only temporarily exacerbated a pre-existing condition. The worker was already suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder after being involved in a car accident and witnessing a murder before the attempted theft took place.

Employer found liable

“As to the scope of liability, the responsibility for the injury should be imposed on [the employer],” Queensland District Court Judge David Kent said.

“This is because of firstly, [the employer’s] admitted duty to [the worker].

“Secondly its foresight of the event occurring.

“Thirdly, as outlined above, not only the event, but also the injury, was foreseeable.

“Fourthly, the operative breach, a failure to amend its training processes, was achievable with little difficulty or expense.

“Fifth, [the employer’s] alleged failure to follow the sales process procedure by taking the item out for a price check was a breach of a sales tactic, not a safety procedure, and not a sufficient intervening event to break the chain of causation – in that context it is of course notable that contributory negligence is not pleaded.

“Finally, the resources of the parties to respond to the risk were disparate.

“[The employer] is a large multi-national corporation whose business – the processes of which were within its control involves small valuable items retailed through many outlets, employing many people such as [the worker], and which had suffered many such incidents in the time leading up to the incident, of which it could have informed itself and assessed risk.

“Conversely [the sales assistant] was a worker, subject to direction, vulnerable to risks caused by inappropriate procedures, and with no control of what procedures were mandated.

“[The employer] submitted that the scope of liability should not be extended to it where it was not aware of [the worker’s] pre-existing vulnerability, however my conclusion is that an injury of the same general type was nevertheless foreseeable.”

Judge Kent awarded the worker $270,439 in damages, which included $182,000 for future economic loss.

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