An employer's failure to address the obvious risks posed by its "incredibly cluttered" warehouse set off a "catastrophic" sequence of events, and has led to a $5.6 million damages award to an injured worker.
Freedom Furniture's damages bill included $3.7 million in future out-of-pocket and domestic care expenses for the worker, who would require care for the rest of his life.
ACT Supreme Court Justice Robert Crowe found the employer negligently failed to provide a safe system of work at its Fyshwick warehouse.
He found it should have been obvious to the employer that the warehouse's cluttered aisles were unsafe and the way large items were stored created the risk of them falling on personnel.
Justice Crowe heard that in September 2016, the worker was attempting to load a 120kg boxed sofa onto a trolley when the sofa knocked over a 100kg flat-packed dining table that was standing upright against an adjacent shelf.
The table struck the worker on the head and shoulder and he lost his grip on the trolley. He then attempted to stabilise the sofa to stop it falling and injured his lower back. He subsequently developed a severe psychiatric disorder.
The worker sued Freedom Furniture for negligence, submitting he had complained to managers that there was too much stock in the warehouse and staff were likely to hurt themselves.
The employer failed to provide him with a safe system or safe access to the work he was required to perform, or take appropriate steps to assess and manage the risk of injury arising from the working conditions in the warehouse, he argued.
Justice Crowe said, "Having regard to the evidence as to the cluttered nature of the aisles within the [employer's] warehouse, I am satisfied that the system of work under which the [worker] was working on 26 September 2016 was unsafe."
The Court heard that in early 2016, Freedom Furniture lost access to two off-site storage premises and moved all the stock from those premises to the Fyshwick warehouse.
It heard the warehouse became "incredibly cluttered" and workers regularly had to move items to access stock and weave in between furniture to travel through the site.
The employer initially denied liability for the worker's condition and contended he was contributorily negligent, before abandoning these claims and only contesting the worker's claimed damages amount.
The Court heard the worker's back injury caused him to develop a disabling mental illness. It heard this stemmed, in part, from his belief that his workers' comp case manager was pushing his GP to reduce his work restrictions too early, and the case manager suggesting his pain was "entirely in his head".
He said he started to feel paranoid, believing people were judging him and talking about him behind his back at work, which led to him suffering panic attacks.
In mid-2017, his workers' comp insurer closed his claim based on the recommendations of a five-minute physical assessment, which resulted in him drinking alcohol heavily, thinking about suicide and engaging in self-harm, he said.
The worker's mental health deteriorated significantly, and he was admitted to a mental health facility several times.
The employer disputed the worker's bid for $9.2 million in damages, claiming the 35-year-old man was only entitled to $2.5 million because his psychological vulnerability and unsuccessful treatment pointed to a life expectancy of just five years.
"Unfortunately, the injury to the [worker's] back set in train a sequence of events which was catastrophic" for him, and his chances of recovering to his pre-injury level of functioning were "very low", Justice Crowe said.
However, the evidence fell "well short of supporting... the assumption of a five-year life expectancy", he said. He awarded the worker $5,624,298 in damages.
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