Employer escapes liability for contractor negligence

Wormleaton v Thomas & Coffey Limited (No 4) [2015] NSWSC 260


Before: Campbell J


















TORTS – negligence – liability for severe crush injury at work – duty of care owed by an employer to its employee – whether breach of duty of care was within the scope of the employer/employee relationship TORTS – negligence – liability of entrepreneur – liability of head contractor – injury in area of sub-contractors shared responsibility – obligation to implement safe system of work – casual negligence of employees of major sub-contractor DAMAGES – torts – negligence – workers compensation – impact of substantial diminution of earning capacity in determining past and future economic loss DAMAGES – torts – negligence – workers compensation – application of compensatory principle in circumstances where different types of prosthetics availableMr Wormleaton (“the Plaintiff”) suffered a leg injury during the course of his employment as a dogman with Allstate Labour Hire Pty Ltd.  After unsuccessful attempts to save the limb, the Plaintiff’s leg was amputated from below the knee. Transfield Services Engineering Group Pty Ltd (“Transfield”) was engaged by Bluescope to upgrade the site.  Transfield then sub-contracted Thomas & Coffey Ltd (“Thomas”) for certain tasks that were required.  Transfield were the main sub-contractor.   The incident was said to have been caused by 2 of Thomas’ employees – prematurely removing bolts from the frame, which was not in accordance with the process of dissembling.

Both Transfield and Thomas admitted breaching their duties of care to the Plaintiff prior to trial however; in issue was whether the employer’s non-delegable duty extended to supervising the contractors for the prescribed system.

The employer escaped liability:

38. As the principle contractor, Transfield owed Mr Wormleaton the duty of care described in the decisions of the High Court in Stevens v Brodribb Sawmilling Company Pty Ltd [1986] HCA 1; 160 CLR 16, and Leighton Contractors Pty Ltd v Fox [2009] HCA 35; 240 CLR 1. That category of duty is taken to be defined by the-oft cited statement of principle of Brennan J (as his Honour then was) in Stevens at [47] – [48]. Before setting the passage out, it is worth pointing out that in Leighton Contractors a unanimous Court expressed the duty of a principal contractor, where it arises, as “a duty to use reasonable care to ensure that the system of work for one or more independent contractors is safe” (Leighton Contractors at 11 [20]). In Stevens Brennan J said:

An entrepreneur who organizes an activity involving a risk of injury to those engaged in it is under a duty to use reasonable care in organizing the activity to avoid or minimize that risk, and that duty is imposed whether or not the entrepreneur is under a further duty of care to servants employed by him to carry out that activity. The entrepreneur’s duty arises simply because he is creating the risk… and his duty is more limited than the duty owed by an employer to an employee. The duty to use reasonable care in organizing an activity does not import a duty to avoid any risk of injury; it imports a duty to use reasonable care to avoid unnecessary risks of injury and to minimize other risks of injury. It does not import a duty to retain control of working systems if it is reasonable to engage the services of independent contractors who are competent themselves to control their system of work without supervision by the entrepreneur. The circumstances may make it necessary for the entrepreneur to retain and exercise a supervisory power or to prescribe the respective areas of responsibility of independent contractors if confusion about those areas involves a risk of injury. But once the activity has been organized and its operation is in the hands of independent contractors, liability for negligence by them within the area of their responsibility is not borne vicariously by the entrepreneur. If there is no failure to take reasonable care in the employment of independent contractors competent to control their own systems of work, or in not retaining a supervisory power or in leaving undefined the contractors’ respective areas of responsibility, the entrepreneur is not liable for damage caused merely by a negligent failure of an independent contractor to adopt or follow a safe system of work either within his area of responsibility or in an area of shared responsibility. (Footnotes and citations omitted)

I bear in mind that the duty, where it arises, is to use reasonable care to avoid unnecessary risks of injury, it is not an absolute one to avoid any risk of injury

39. This case, it seems to me, falls into the category where it is necessary for Transfield to retain and exercise a supervisory power over the shared responsibility of T&C and Allstate. I accept that liability for Mr Wormleaton’s injury does not accrue to Transfield merely because of negligence in the area of shared responsibility between T&C and Allstate. It is notable that in the purchase order delivered by Transfield to T&C (Exhibit 1D 19), Transfield said the work of disassembling the sinter cooler would be done “under the direction of Transfield’s Mr Mark Sheldon”. Moreover, at the commencement of work on 30th March 2009, the tool box meeting attended by the Allstate crew was conducted by Mr Lance Wise of Transfield. Mr Mark Sheldon was one of the persons Inspector Cobbin met with soon after attending the site (Exhibit H [7]). In my judgment, the circumstances of the case including the complexity of the job and the need to co-ordinate the activities of T&C and Allstate made it necessary for Transfield to retain and exercise a supervisory power over the operations. It is clear from the evidence I have recounted that it purported. This is not a case where having organised the activity, Transfield was content to leave “its operation in the hands of independent contractors”.

40. Moreover, the language employed by the Court in Leighton Contractors, “to use reasonable care to ensure that the system of work … is safe” bespeaks a personal non-delegable duty which may be taken to arise out of the principal contractors assumption of continuing care, supervision or control for the safety of the system of work: Kondis v State Transport Authority [1984] HCA 61; 1984 154 CLR 672 at 687; Stevens at [32] – [33]; [45] – [46]. In that latter passage, Wilson and Dawson JJ put to one side any analogy with an employer’s duty of care and instead stated:

We think that such a duty in this case was non-delegable, although for reasons which can be expressed more simply and in a different way [from Kondis]. Any such duty was, in effect, a duty to exercise care in the co-ordination of the activities of the various contractors. No question arises of the delegation of that function to any separate contractor and it can hardly have been delegated to them all merely by reason of their having been engaged as independent contractors. In that event the duty would have been negated and have ceased to exist. Put another way, the duty of co-ordinating the activities of the contractors can hardly have been performed by returning that responsibility to them. In our view, it is for this reason, rather than any special element in the relationship between Brodribb and its contractors, that no question arises of the delegation of any duty which it might have owed to them.

It is axiomatic that Transfield is not vicariously liable for the casual negligence of the employees of T&C: Sweeney v Boylan Nominees Pty Ltd [2006] HCA 19; 226 CLR 161.

The liability of Allstate

72.  As the passage quoted from Leighton Contractors above demonstrates, the duty of care owed by an employer to an employee is non-delegable and for that reason is generally considered “more stringent” because “the requirement of reasonable care … extends to seeing that care is taken”: Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd [1994] HCA 13; 179 CLR 520 at 550. Of the application of this principle, Mason P, in TNT Australia Pty Ltd v Christie [2003] NSWCA 47; 65 NSWLR 1 at 12 [47] – [48]:

The authorities … demonstrate that, in the realm of negligence, (a) a non-delegable duty of care will (like a duty based on vicarious liability) be imposed on categories of persons regardless of personal fault on their part in the circumstances giving rise to the plaintiff’s injury; but (b) the plaintiff must prove that damage was caused by lack of reasonable care on the part of someone (not necessarily the defendant) within the scope of the relevant duty of care.

The second requirement, namely that the plaintiff’s injury occur within the scope of the special relationship, is frequently passed over because the requirement is clearly satisfied in the particular case. But the issue cannot be ignored and it has significance in cases such as the present.

73.  Although “stringent” the duty of care of an employer is not absolute, it is one to take reasonable care to avoid exposing employees to unnecessary risks of injury: Crimmins v Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee [1999] HCA 59; 200 CLR 1 at 98.

74.  Because an employer’s liability can arise without personal fault, it is tempting to say that liability in Allstate follows more or less automatically from the liability of Transfield and T&C, but this is not a correct approach.

75.  It is beyond argument that an aspect of the employer’s non-delegable duty of care is the obligation to take reasonable care to provide a safe system of work for the its employees: Kondis v State Transport Authority (1984) 154 CLR 672 at 694. In Andar Transport Pty Ltd v Brambles Ltd [2004] HCA 28; 217 CLR 424 at 57, a case where an employee was performing his work in a system of work devised by a principal contractor, the Court described the employer’s obligation as an “independent obligation to satisfy itself of the safety of the system” (see also Shoalhaven City Council v Humphries [2013] NSWCA 390 at [8]).

76.  The expression “system of work” is usually taken as suggesting an ongoing series of similar of somewhat similar operations: see Glass, McHugh and Douglas, The Liability of Employers (2nd ed 1979, The Law Book Company Ltd) at 20-21; Winter v Cardiff Rural District Council [1950] 1 All ER 819 at 825. The obligation, however, extends to the provision of a safe system of work in relation to a single isolated operation, at least when the circumstances are such that it is not reasonable to leave the matter in the hands of an experienced tradesman: Speed v Thomas Swift & Co (1943) KB 557. Glass, McHugh and Douglas say at p 23:

Simple uncomplicated operations such as the method of using his tools of trade by a tradesman could not reasonably require the provision of a system by the employer. Nor will there be much scope for alleging the necessity for a system in the case of casual or isolated tasks of a simple character which do not involve any real risk if ordinary care is exercised.

I accept that this is not such a case.

77.  But the present case raises a particular issue about Mason P’s “second requirement” whether Mr Wormleaton’s injury occurred within the scope of the employer/employee relationship. In Dib Group Pty Ltd T/as Hill & Co. v Cole [2009] NSWCA 210 at [54] – [55] Basten JA expressed the following principles:

The employer’s duty, however effected, to adopt safe systems of work and to provide proper plant and equipment, will operate differently on its own premises and in circumstances over which it has full control, as compared with premises under the control of others and circumstances over which it does not have control. Where the safety of premises is at stake, as in this case, it is appropriate to ask quite specific questions with respect to what may be expected of an employer exercising reasonable care for the safety of its employees. For example, is it reasonable for the employer to request or require access to premises to carry out its own safety inspection? Is it necessary (and sufficient) if the employer inquires of the occupier what steps it has taken to conduct such an assessment? Is it necessary (and sufficient) for the employer to inquire in specific terms of its own employees as to the nature of the conditions they encounter at other premises?

These questions are analogous to the approach to be adopted with respect to the acquisition of plant and equipment discussed in Davie. In such a case, it is not sensible, nor consistent with the requirement to take reasonable care, to treat the employer as “delegating” its duty to provide safe equipment to the manufacturer or supplier. So long as it has acted reasonably, the employer will not be liable for injury to its employee resulting from a defect in equipment or plant not identifiable by reasonable care on the part of the employer, even though the defect is the result of negligent manufacture.

78.  The case is clearly one where the premises and the system of work are not under Allstates’ control. Allstates had control of the actual lift of the components by crane. It had no control over the general process of disassembly or over T&C’s employees. It had no power to co-ordinate their activities and those of T&C, even if this was an area of “shared responsibility”.

79.  Transfield and T&C argue, relying on Mr Dubos’s opinions, that Allstates negligence consists of failing to detail the system to be followed in the safe work statement and failing to provide supervision of Mr Wormleaton, Mr Graham and the crane operator in the performance of their work. Reference was made to Fairfield City Council v Coupe [2001] NSWCA 195.

80.  Mr Coupe’s employer left him to work at a municipal swimming pool subject to the directions of a council officer. He was injured when he cut his hands severely on un-deburred steel bars supporting the pool deck when he was cleaning the deck panels. Leaving Mr Coupe to work under the direction of the council officer was negligent because no precaution available to the employer established by the evidence was taken to protect him from the foreseeable risk that the steel bars would be sharp.

81.  In my judgment Coupe is not a case in point. Mr Coupe was at all times working under the retained control and direction of his employer; his services were not hired out to the Council. But it falls into a different category of cases from this case. In some respects Coupe is overtaken by TNT v Christie.

82.  In the present case, it is true to say that the safe working statement provided to its employees by Allstate was expressed in the most general terms and did not address the particular difficulties of removing the southern and northern frames. Moreover, the supervisor, Mr Fuller, it seems to be common ground, was not present at the time this work was undertaken, leaving the Allstate workers to take directions from the T&C supervisors.

83.  The problem in this case was not the safety of the system, but failure in its implementation, which would not have occurred had Transfield fulfilled its obligation to direct the work and co-ordinate the activities of T&C and Allstate. These were considerations beyond the control of Allstate. Had Mr Fuller been present and said to Mr Reichardt or Mr Rodgers, “What system is to be followed for removing the southern and northern frames?” he could have made no objection to the answer he would have been given. Had the system been fully described in the JSEA Mr Fuller would have read it at the toolbox meeting and approved of it. The system devised for this trickier lift accorded with the requirements of reasonable care for the safety of the workers. But Mr Fuller could take no steps to ensure that T&C’s fitters did not act prematurely because they were beyond his control. No one else at Allstate had that power of control over them or any other aspect of T&C’s operations.

84.  In my judgment, the particular risk which materialised in this case was beyond the scope of the employer/employee relationship in the sense discussed by Mason P in TNT v Christie. If I am wrong about this, as in Shoalhaven City Council it perhaps could be said that Allstate breached its duty of care by failing to make any inquiry of T&C about the system it devised for lifting the northern and southern frames. But also as in Shoalhaven City Council, as I have said, had inquiry been made, and the details of the system to be implemented explained, a reasonable employer in the position of Allstate would have been satisfied with the response. If there had been a breach on the part of Allstate, it was not causative of Mr Wormleaton’s injury in accordance with the common law applicable in a work injury damages case (see s3B Civil Liability Act 2002), and the employer, in my judgment is not liable to Mr Wormleaton in negligence. Allstate is not a “tortfeasor liable in respect of the same damage” for the purpose of statutory contribution.


David Cormack – Brisbane Barrister & Mediator.

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