In Hooker v Allied Pumps Pty Ltd (2018), an office worker who suffered whiplash injuries when he quickly turned after being startled by a gas alarm has won nearly $2 million in damages.
The defective gas detector, designed to be worn by staff working in confined spaces, had been left in the office and was set off by another employee.
When the worker heard the “loud and piercing screeching” sound he turned sharply, causing his knees to hit the side of his desk and pain in his neck and shoulders.
He was later diagnosed with a soft tissue injury in his neck. His condition gradually deteriorated and he later required surgeries.
The worker claimed that he was left permanently incapacitated by the injury and had also suffered psychological damage, rendering him unfit for employment.
Initially, he sought $2.5 million in compensation for damages and past and future loss of earnings, but his employer disputed the claim.
Perth-based Allied Pumps argued “that the presence of the gas detector (faulty or otherwise) in the [office] did not present a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury … it was not a dangerous piece of equipment and, indeed, was designed to be worn close to the person and, as such, expose wearers to the sudden or startling sound of the alarm”.
The employer submitted that the risk it presented was no different from any other sound which could startle an employee, like a slamming door.
While the judge agreed that “all sorts of objects could cause a sudden loud noise in the operations room if mishandled and could startle someone who was not expecting it”, he reminded the employer that in such a situation they could also “be liable in negligence for its own omissions or vicariously for the negligence of the actual culprit”.
Also, the judge did not consider those other sounds to be commensurate with that of the alarm, which was “completely alien” to the office environment and was an “extremely unexpected” and “loud and uncomfortable noise”.
He said that “the magnitude and type of startle response evinced by the [employee] was reasonably foreseeable, as was the risk that he would suffer musculoskeletal harm of the whiplash kind”.
The judge found that the employer had breached its duty of care to the worker and was liable for the injuries he sustained.
“In short, someone in a position of responsibility left a defective alarm in an office environment where it could foreseeably be activated without warning to others and physically startle them enough to provoke some form of musculoskeletal injury” he said.
The employer was ordered to pay the worker damages totalling $1,976,364.40.