The Queensland Court of Appeal has upheld the decision of Justice Flanagan of the Supreme Court of Queensland in the matter of AAI v Caffrey which concerned psychiatric harmed suffered by a police officer who attended the scene of a horrific car accident.
The Plaintiff was a police officer who attended a car crash on a rural road in the State’s southeast. The accident was caused by a motorist who while under the influence of alcohol and drugs, collided with a tree. The driver survived the initial imp-
act but was severely injured. The crash caused the driver to be trapped in his car, with his legs crushed and separated from his body.
The Plaintiff did his best to console the driver until his parents and paramedics arrived. When paramedics arrived they assessed the driver and found that his injuries were fatal. Paramedics informed the Plaintiff that the driver would not survive his injuries and that his parents would need to say their goodbyes. The plaintiff watched as the drivers parents held their son and said their goodbyes. The driver died shortly after at the scene.
The Plaintiff was extremely traumatised by the accident and suffered serious harm to his mental health. Eventually he was sacked by the Queensland Police Service because his mental health prevented him from properly serving as a police officer. The Plaintiff sued the driver at common law for damages. He had to prove a duty of care, breach, causation, damage and damages.
After carefully deliberating on many policy factors and relevant legislation, Justice Flanagan found in the Plaintiff’s favour. His Honour held that drivers owe a duty of care to prevent psychological harm to police officers who attend motor vehicle accidents. The Court emphasised that drivers owe a duty to all rescuers not to cause them psychiatric harm as a result of negligent driving. Consequently, Justice Flanagan awarded the police officer over $1 million in damages.
AAI appealed Justice Flanagan’s decision. In August 2019, the appeal was heard in the Queensland Court of Appeal by the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Sofronoff, and Justices Philippides and McMurdo. His Honour, President Sofronoff, wrote the principal judgment with which the other judges agreed.
What was contended?
AAI contended that Justice Flanagan erred in finding that the driver owed a duty of care to the Plaintiff, as a police officer. President Sofronoff held that the appeal had to fail. His Honour considered the authorities and found that Justice Flanagan had correctly applied all authorities that concerned psychiatric harm suffered by rescuers. President Sofronoff also noted that AAI did not point to any error of fact.
The appeal was dismissed with costs. This meant that Justice Flanagan’s decision remained and that AAI had to pay the Plaintiff’s costs of the appeal.
This decision highlights the importance for all motorists to take care while driving and in particular, it emphasises that the duty owed by road users extends not just to physical harm but also to psychiatric trauma.