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 motor vehicle accident. The case brought into question whether a victim owes a duty of care to rescuers.
The Plaintiff was a police officer who attended a car crash on a rural road in the State’s southeast. A motorist, who while under the influence of alcohol and drugs collided with a tree, caused the accident. The driver survived the initial impact but the accident caused severe injuries. The crash trapped the driver in his car. The impact crushed his legs and separated them 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 accident extremely traumatised the Plaintiff and caused serious harm to his mental health. Eventually, the Queensland Police Service fired him 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.
Do Driver’s Owe Rescuers a Duty of Care
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.
Upholding the Decision that Driver’s Owe Rescuers a Duty of Care
The Court dismissed the appeal 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.