High Court: Prisoner who lost fingers at metal welding workshop has claim dismissed

Four CourtsA man who lost his fingers while using a machine at a metal welding workshop in Wheatfield Prison, has had his claim for damages dismissed in the High Court.

It was claimed that he was left unsupervised in the workshop at a time when he was adversely affected by methadone, however Mr Justice Bernard Barton dismissed the claim, stating that the man’s evidence could not be relied upon as it was was variously inconsistent, inaccurate, and contradictory.

Background

In November 2008, while serving a sentence for burglary in Wheatfield Prison (a purpose built work and training correctional facility), the Plaintiff, Felix Moorehouse, 35, suffered a traumatic amputation to the fingers of his left hand while using a GEKA Minicrop sheer and punch machine in the metal welding workshop of the prison.

Liability for the accident was fully contested.

The GEKA Minicrop

  1. The cutting/cropping and punch facilities constituted dangerous parts of the GEKA Minicrop which required guarding to minimise or avoid the risk of injury; the opening to the cropping facility was designed and fitted with an adjustable device known as a hold down guide which also served as a safety guard (the guide-guard);
  2. At the time of the accident the Plaintiff’s left hand was in the pathway of the shear blades of the machine, the guide guard had been removed; the identity of the individual and responsibility for the removal of the guide-guard was in question;
  3. The Plaintiff and Jonathan Nicholson, the Industrial Training Instructor (ITI) with responsibility for supervision and training in the workshop, denied removing the guide-guard;
  4. If fitted and properly adjusted, the guide-guard would have prevented any part of the Plaintiff’s hand entering the cropping compartment to the point where it would have been in the path of travel of the shear blades; the injuries could not have been sustained had the guide-guard been so positioned

The Accident

There was controversy between the parties on a number of matters concerning the circumstances leading up to, at the time of and after the accident.

It was the plaintiff’s case that he was performing a permissible function as part of his welding course at an unguarded and dangerous machine, at a time where he did not want to be in the workshop, and was adversely affected by methadone.

It was the defendants case that the plaintiff intentionally misled the Court and others acting or retained on his behalf.

ITI Nicholson gave evidence that at the time that the Plaintiff was admitted to the workshop on the afternoon of the accident he spoke with him; there were no signs of intoxication or of being ‘strung out’ on drugs; and that in any case the Plaintiff was assigned to sweeping duties.

When a problem with cropping steel bars developed in the GEKA, ITI Nicholson extracted the steel bar which had jammed in the machine; he turned the machine off by pushing the emergency stop button and had engaged the isolator switch.

He gave instructions to prisoners in the vicinity, including the Plaintiff, that no one was to touch the machine because it was out of order; he told them that he was going to the office to get an out of order tag for the machine. He was only gone a few minutes and had just finished a short call in his office with Governor Walsh when he was alerted to the accident.

In contrast to the consistent reports from witnesses on behalf of the defendants, certain aspects of the Plaintiff’s evidence were variously inconsistent, inaccurate or contradictory. As such, the plaintiff was not adjudicated to be “a witness on whose evidence alone the Court could rely”.

On the evidence, Justice Barton opined that the accident had happened while the Plaintiff was doing something other than cutting a bar and that whatever he was doing it involved the accidental or deliberate placing of his hand into the cropper which he then activated.

Supervision

A former UK Prison Governor gave evidence on behalf of the plaintiff, condemning the prison policy to allow known drug abusing prisoners to operate dangerous machinery in a prison workshop.

From his experience, he would not have allowed prisoners affected by methadone to work on a typewriter never mind machinery; giving them instructions was like “telling a three-year-old not to eat cake”, the place for them was in their cell.

With regard to supervision of prisoners in general, his opinion was that they had to be supervised at all times and that the work and training area of the work shop should never have been left unsupervised even for a short time; there were obvious security as well as health and safety reasons.

Decision

Justice Barton was satisfied that there was a breach of statutory duty in failing to comply with the provisions of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 with regard to requirements relating the provision of a Safety Statement and Risk Assessment, and with regard to the duties owed to the Plaintiff and the Safety, Health and Welfare (General Applications) Regulations 2007.

Notwithstanding this finding, Justice Barton stated that the fundamental issue in this case was the way and manner in which the plaintiff said the accident occurred. Justice Barton stated that whether the accident involved a deliberate act, the Plaintiff failed to satisfy the Court on the balance of probabilities that the accident occurred in the way, manner and circumstances described in the plaintiff’s evidence.

Ordering that the claim should be dismissed, Justice Barton held that the plaintiff had failed to discharge the onus of proof.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News