A landmark decision of the Supreme Court has shed new light on whether motorists (and their insurers) owe a ‘duty of care’ to prevent psychological harm to police officers who attend motor vehicle accidents in their line of work.
The plaintiff was a police officer who attended a motor vehicle accident in February 2013 on a rural road in South-East Queensland. The accident was caused by a motorist who was driving without proper care. Two police officers arrived at the scene, which involved a collision with a tree. The motorist was alive, although gravely injured.
The plaintiff spent considerable time with the motorist, who was trapped in the vehicle. It was described in Court that the motorist’s legs were crushed, and separated from his body. The plaintiff administered first aid as best he could, consoled the motorist, holding his hand. He told the motorist “come on mate, don’t give up.” One can only imagine the trauma of this scene.
It was at this time that the motorist’s parents arrived at the accident scene. They had been concerned for their son’s welfare, and knew he was driving in the area. The plaintiff reassured the motorists mother that he would survive. He also informed the motorist that his mother was there, so he should not give up.
The Fire Brigade and Ambulance arrived some time later, whilst the plaintiff was still tending to the motorist. The police officer continued to console the motorist, as he was still breathing at the scene. Shortly thereafter, paramedics informed the police that the motorist would not survive his injuries. The police and paramedics spoke to the motorist’s mother, took her hand, and brought her to her son to say her final goodbye. Tragically, the young man passed away soon after.
The police officer was greatly distressed in Court recounting this experience. In heartbreaking testimony, he spoke of relating the experience to his own children – and discussed in Court the thought of losing his own son in such circumstances. Clearly, he was very distressed by being placed in such a position.
In the weeks and months after the accident, the plaintiff suffered serious harm to his mental health. After sessions with a consultant psychiatrist, he described the impact that the incident had had on his life and relationships. The plaintiff was granted time off work to aid his recovery, and was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.