The case of Corbin v State of Queensland has found that Queensland Corrective Services are not liable for injuries caused to a prison officer who was assaulted by a prisoner at the Wolston Correctional Centre.

Prison Officer Assaulted by Prisoner During Work

The Honourable Justice Ryan of the Supreme Court of Queensland delivered judgment on 3 May 2019, after a six-day trial. The plaintiff in this case was a 50-year-old man, separated from his wife. His mother was living with him and he had one adult son. Corrective Services employed the plaintiff to work as a prison officer at Wolston. Wolston is a protection prison, meaning that it houses prisoners who need protection for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to: protection from attacks by other prisoners, advanced age, or mental illness. About 60% of the prisoners at Wolston are mental health cases, 50% are child sex offenders, and 20% are young offenders.

The relevant prisoner was a 29-year-old young offender, with previous convictions for drug and property offences. He was being housed in a unit with a common area, normally staffed by two prison officers. On 10 October 2013, the prisoner was smoking and playing cards in the common area of his unit. This was in breach of prison rules. The plaintiff asked the prisoner to stop smoking. However, the prisoner ignored him. The other prison officer in the unit went outside of the unit to the bins. Consequentially, The plaintiff was alone at the officers’ station.

The Prison Officer Suffered Severe Injuries

The plaintiff saw that the prisoner was still smoking. He asked the prisoner again to put out the cigarette. When the prisoner did not stop smoking, the plaintiff approached him. Unfortunately, The plaintiff was assaulted by the prisoner.

The prisoner struck the plaintiff repeatedly on the left side of the head and face and knocked him to the ground. It is likely that this caused the plaintiff to briefly black out. There was a large amount of blood. Ipswich Hospital treated the plaintiff after the assault. He suffered profuse bleeding from his mouth. The attack resulted in serious injuries including; lacerated lips, and damaged and loose teeth. His head was sore and lumpy. There were no facial fractures. The plaintiff did manage to return to work at Wolston but he was more nervous than usual. He developed a head twitch and migraines. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Proving Corrective Services Liable

The parties agreed that the plaintiff suffered physical and psychiatric injuries, namely, cranio-facial dystonia, bruising, lacerations, scarring, disfigurement, and PTSD. The plaintiff received Botox injections in his neck, faces, eyes, throat, and shoulders, every three months, to try and alleviate the head twitch. There are three basic elements to substantiate an action in negligence. The first is to establish a duty of care. The second is to prove that the duty was breached. Finally, the third is to prove that the breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries. If all three elements are satisfied on the balance of probabilities, then the plaintiff is entitled to recover damages.

The State of Queensland is liable for Corrective Services, so the plaintiff sued the State of Queensland for damages in negligence for personal injuries. The plaintiff claimed that Corrective Services negligently managed the prisoner, who should have been on an Intensive Management Plan. The plaintiff argued that if the prisoner were on such a plan then the prisoner would not have been able to assault him. The State of Queensland argued that the plaintiff failed to establish either a breach of duty (the second element), or causation (the third element), and was therefore not liable in negligence. At the conclusion of the trial, one of the significant issues in dispute was whether the prisoner’s assault upon the plaintiff was reasonably foreseeable. If it was not reasonably foreseeable then Corrective Services would not be liable.

Was the Prisoner’s Attack Reasonably Foreseeable?

Her Honour considered the prisoner’s criminal history, behaviour in prison, and interactions with the plaintiff and other prison officers. Her Honour concluded that, prior to the assault on the plaintiff, the prisoner had been quite well-behaved. That was part of the evidence that suggested it was not reasonably foreseeable that the prisoner would assault the plaintiff. Her Honour considered Corrective Service’s duty of care, the foreseeability of the assault, that the prisoner was “unremarkable”, and that the prisoner did not warrant a Management Plan to manage his risk.

Consequently, the Court needed to consider whether Corrective Services failed to take precautions against the risk of assault posed by the prisoner. The plaintiff failed to persuade Her Honour  that a reasonable employer would have managed the prisoner differently. Therefore, Her Honour concluded that Corrective Services did not breach its duty to the plaintiff. The plaintiff was unable to substantiate the second element.

Plaintiff Denied Compensation

Further, the Plaintiff failed to persuade Her Honour that any potential breach by Corrective Services caused the injuries to the plaintiff. Her Honour found that the presence of the second officer alongside the plaintiff would not have prevented the assault from occurring. Therefore the plaintiff was unable to substantiate the third element. Ultimately, the plaintiff failed to satisfy for the Court that Corrective Services were liable for the injuries to the plaintiff, or that anything the Corrective Services did or failed to do, caused the injuries to the plaintiff. Consequentially, the prison officer, although assaulted by the prisoner during his work, was denied compensation.

In the interests of completeness, her Honour carried out an assessment of the quantum of damages to the value of around $630,000. However, because the Court did not find Corrective Services  liable, they did not award this amount to the plaintiff. This case highlights the importance of establishing all of the elements in negligence to substantiate a claim. It shows that if liability cannot be established, it does not matter how large a claim for damages it is.

Corbin v State of Queensland [2019] QSC 110

Prison Officer Denied Compensation