Appeal Successful: Landmark Case Challenges Employer’s Duty in Fatigue-Related Accident

Jun 8, 2023 | Publication

Coalroc Contractors Pty Ltd (the appellant) appealed against a judgment in favour of Troy Matinca (the first respondent) entered by Campbell J (the primary judge). The primary judge found the appellant liable in negligence and awarded the first respondent a sum of $1,130,782.28, with a 30% reduction for contributory negligence. The case revolves around an accident suffered by Mr. Matinca while driving home from work, which he claimed was caused by fatigue induced by the nature and conditions of his work. The primary judge held that the appellant had failed to exercise reasonable care in managing the risk of fatigue during Mr. Matinca’s journey home.

Factual Background:

On April 17, 2016, Mr. Matinca, a coal miner, was driving home to Mount Hutton after working three successive 12-hour shifts at Ulan West Coal Mine over the weekend. He sustained serious injuries when his vehicle veered off the road, collided with a tree, and subsequently collided head-on with another tree. Mr. Matinca had no recollection of the accident or the hours leading up to it, and there were no eyewitnesses.

Mr. Matinca’s Claim:

Mr. Matinca argued that the accident resulted from fatigue induced by the nature and conditions of his work. He contended that the appellant owed him a duty of care, which extended to taking reasonable measures to manage the risk of an accident caused by fatigue during his journey home. The primary judge agreed with Mr. Matinca’s arguments and found the appellant negligent for failing to require Mr. Matinca to submit a personal travel management plan for approval. The plan, according to the primary judge, would have necessitated a rest stop of approximately 20-30 minutes, preventing the accident caused by fatigue.

Grounds of Appeal:

The appellant challenged the primary judge’s findings, specifically disputing the conclusion that work-induced fatigue was the cause of the accident. They also raised grounds concerning the scope of duty owed, sufficiency of training in fatigue, and the requirement of a travel plan for approval.

NSW Court of Appeal’s Decision:

The Court, comprising Adamson JA, Meagher and Mitchelmore JJA, allowed the appeal and set aside the judgment. They made the following key determinations:

Causation and Fatigue (Grounds 1-5): The Court emphasized that proving causation requires more than establishing that a particular factor cannot be excluded as a cause of the injury. While fatigue may commonly cause single vehicle accidents, Mr. Matinca failed to discharge the onus of proving that fatigue was probably the cause of his accident. Since the accident resulted from momentary inattention rather than loss of consciousness, additional evidence was necessary to establish fatigue as the cause.

Scope of Duty Owed (Ground 6): The Court deemed it unnecessary and undesirable to address the scope of duty owed, as the primary judge had only found a duty to insist on a travel plan, which was the sole relevant duty.

Sufficiency of Training (Ground 7): The Court deemed it unnecessary to address this ground, as the primary judge did not have an obligation to determine whether the appellant’s training in fatigue was sufficient beyond the duty on which Mr. Matinca relied.

Duty to Insist on Travel Plan (Ground 8): The Court held that an employer’s steps to protect employees from harm outside the work environment did not automatically impose a duty of care to ensure their safe arrival home. The primary purpose of the appellant’s duty was to remind employees of the importance of managing fatigue during their journey home. Requiring an unenforceable and unmonitored travel plan could not be considered a reasonable precaution to protect employees from the risk of driving while fatigued.

Causation Findings (Grounds 9, 10, and 11): The Court found that the primary judge’s causation findings lacked support from the evidence. The decrease in risk resulting from a rest break, which the primary judge believed would have prevented the accident, did not establish negative causation. Similarly, an increase in risk does not positively prove that the accident was caused by fatigue due to the absence of a rest break.

Conclusion:

In summary, the Court allowed the appeal, overturning the judgment in favour of Mr. Matinca. The Court found that the evidence did not sufficiently establish fatigue as the cause of the accident. Furthermore, they determined that the appellant did not owe a duty to insist on a travel plan, and the training provided was not subject to evaluation beyond the duty Mr. Matinca relied upon. The case provides clarification on the requirements for proving causation and the scope of an employer’s duty of care in managing fatigue-related risks for employees’ journey home.

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