Sanders v Mount Isa Mines Limited & Ors  QSC 188
The plaintiff brought a claim against Mount Isa Mines for injuries suffered whilst she was an infant in Mount Isa.
The plaintiff claimed that she had suffered a brain injury and a neurological injury as a result of lead poisoning caused by the defendant’s negligence. The defendants had conducted mining at Mt Isa, in particular between 1990 and 2008. The plaintiff was born in January of 2006 and resided in a house which was within three kilometres of the mining and smelting operations carried out by the defendants. During her youth, the plaintiff played outdoors and ate dirt. The plaintiff alleged that there were no warnings or information about the risks of lead poisoning. Eventually, after seeing an advertisement, the plaintiff’s parents had her blood lead levels tested, revealing that the plaintiffs blood lead levels were high and that she was at serious risk of physical injury. Based on the doctor’s advice, the plaintiff’s parents proceeded to reduce her playtime outside and enforced stringent sanitation.
3 months later, the plaintiffs blood lead levels were retested. This test revealed that the plaintiffs blood lead levels had increased. The plaintiff’s family decided to leave Mount Isa following this result. Despite this, overtime the plaintiff sustained her brain and neurological injury.
The plaintiff’s contention was that a reasonable person in the position of the defendants would have foreseen that the defendant’s conduct involved a risk of injury to children in the town of Mount Isa. The relevant risk of injury being that the absorption of lead from emissions, due to the defendants historically negligent handling of the mines between 1990 and 2008.
Duty of Care
The court found that the alleged duty of care in this case was novel – i.e., there was no previous authority which bound the court. This case did not involve a specific relationship between the plaintiff and defendant, which meant the court had to consider and apply the approach in Caltex Refineries (Qld) Pty Ltd v Stavar (2009) 79 NSWLR 649. This entails determining whether a duty of care exists with reference to the ‘salient features’.
The court considered the relevant salient features. Here, there was no reliance by the plaintiff or her parents upon the defendant – the defendants did not assume responsibility – the plaintiff did not plead vulnerability, and vulnerability itself did not make the first defendant liable in circumstances where others were better placed to protect a child or infant, either directly or by the provision of information.
Ultimately, the court concluded that even if the risk of injury from absorbing emissions was reasonably foreseeable, and a duty would otherwise exist following an examination of the salient features, the defendants did not owe a duty to warn the plaintiff’s parents of the risk to the plaintiff, on the grounds that it was an obvious risk.
Breach of Duty
Even if a duty of care existed, the plaintiff did not establish any breach of duty of care. The plaintiff was unable to establish that the emissions from the mines caused her injuries or that it was appropriate to impose liability on the defendants.
In light of the above, the plaintiff ultimately failed in her case. The judge awarded a small portion of damages on account of some occupational therapy sessions which the plaintiff attended.