When is a worker partially responsible for his accident at work?

Category: Personal Injury

The law has long since recognised the principle of “contributory negligence”.

What this means is that a Judge can find that whilst the Defendant in a claim has breached a duty and caused the Claimant personal injury, the Claimant’s personal injury compensation can be reduced by a percentage to reflect the accident victim’s own legal responsibility for causing his injuries.  In theory, a Judge can apportion contributory negligence against a Claimant at anywhere between 1% to 99%.  In practice however, particularly in the field of accidents at work, the finding of contributory negligence is normally less than a third, although there are exceptions.

The Court of Appeal re-examined the law in relation to contributory negligence in the context of an accident at work in the case of Lewis Casson.  Mr Casson worked in a factory and part of his job involved working with moving machinery.  Part of Mr Casson’s job was to knock or brush debris off the side of a machine.  In order to do this, he had to climb a ladder and place his gloved hand near moving rollers which operated a conveyer belt.  Unfortunately, Mr Casson’s gloved hand became rather too close to the moving rollers and his glove and hand were pulled into the machinery causing him personal injury.  The Trial Judge who heard the case found that Mr Casson’s employers were legally responsible for his injuries because they had failed to properly train him. However, during the course of his evidence Mr Casson had conceded that, with the application of hindsight and common sense, there was an obvious risk in what he was doing, i.e. moving his hand so close to the moving machinery.  The Trial Judge therefore found that Mr Casson was 10 percent to blame for his accident and reduced his compensation by 10 percent.  Mr Casson applied to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal felt the Trial Judge had been overly harsh.  It was clear on the evidence that Mr Casson was simply following what his fellow employees did.  All of them on the same team used the ladder to clean the machinery in the same way in which he did.  The Court of Appeal found that there was no question of the Claimant, Mr Casson, not following orders or having a “reckless disregard for his own safety”.  At most there was a mere error of judgement.  According to previous case law that was not enough to make him negligent, such that he should have a deduction from his damages. The Court of Appeal reminded itself that the reason Mr Casson’s employers have been found in breach of their duty to him in the first place was due to a lack of training.  It was therefore not fair to criticise him for simply following the practice of his fellow employees, even though it was from a common-sense point of view obviously dangerous.  His Appeal was therefore successful and he was awarded 100% of his compensation.