April 16, 2019

Insurance

On 17 February 2013 a vehicle driven by Mr Byron Williams collided with a tree at Hennessy Hill in Queensland.

After arriving at the scene Mr David Caffrey, a Senior Constable with the Queensland Police Service, tried valiantly to save Mr Williams’ life.

Mr Williams’ injuries were so severe he died a short time later while his mother, father and Mr Caffrey looked on.  

In the aftermath of this car accident Mr Caffrey developed and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The question before the Queensland Supreme Court in the case of Caffrey v AAI Limited was did Mr Williams, who died as a result of his own negligent driving, owe Mr Caffrey a duty of care?[1]

What happened on the night in question?

Mr Caffrey and his partner were on duty when they received a call stating there had been an accident where someone had their “legs chopped off”. Mr Williams’ vehicle was wrapped around a tree.

After arriving at the scene of the accident Mr Caffrey climbed into the vehicle with Mr Williams observing he was still alive and his eyes were wide open.

Mr Caffrey was met with the gruesomeness of Mr Williams’ injuries. He observed Mr Williams’ legs were squashed and in the course of trying to help Mr Williams breathe, Mr Caffrey ended up with “matter from Mr Williams’ head” on both his hands.

Mr Caffrey was desperately trying to save Mr Williams’ life. He encouraged Mr Williams to stay alive until other emergency services arrived. Mr Williams’ parents, who were out looking for their son, stumbled across the scene of the accident. Mr Caffrey assured them everything was being done to save their son.

It soon become clear once ambulance officers had arrived that Mr Williams was going to die.

Mr Caffrey informed Mr Williams’ parents of this and accompanied them to say a final goodbye to their son.

In the months following this horrific event, Mr Caffrey was diagnosed with PTSD.

He was certified as unfit to carry out his duties as a police officer and asked to resign from his position in June 2014. Mr Caffrey was ultimately dismissed from the Queensland Police Force in July 2014.

Prior to the dismissal taking effect, on 22 August 2014 Mr Caffrey stumbled upon another horrific accident in which a mother and three children were killed.

This accident was not the basis of Mr Caffrey’s claim, but it did form part of the defence’s argument.

What were the arguments at Trial?

Mr Caffrey argued the deceased driver owed him a duty of care to take reasonable care not to cause psychiatric injury. Mr Caffrey alleged that it was reasonably foreseeable that a person acting in their role as a police officer in those circumstances may suffer a psychiatric injury.   

The compulsory third party (CTP) insurer of the deceased driver argued that Mr Caffrey was not owed a duty of care on a number of grounds, one of those being on policy grounds due to Mr Caffrey’s position as a police officer. It was argued that attending upon these kinds of accidents was simply part of Mr Caffrey’s job.

The insurer also argued the risk of suffering a psychiatric injury was not reasonably foreseeable, or if it was reasonably foreseeable that such a risk of harm was only slight.

Why was the February 2013 accident so impactful on Mr Caffrey?

At trial Mr Caffrey explained why the events in February 2013 were distinguishable to other accidents in his career, namely the events of 22 August 2014.

Mr Caffrey explained that other accidents in his career, including the accident on 22 August 2014, involved only carnage. Mr Caffrey said police officers are mostly involved in these kinds of accidents to investigate and “clean up”.

Before the events in February 2013 Mr Caffrey had never witnessed anybody die.

But on 17 February 2013 Mr Caffrey sat with a man suffering from devastating injuries and tried to save his life and comfort him in his final moments. Mr Caffrey imagined his own son’s face on the driver’s face. He witnessed a mother and father watch their son die.

What did the Court decide?

The Court found the deceased driver did owe Mr Caffrey a duty of care.

It was held it was reasonably foreseeable a police officer in Mr Caffrey’s situation might suffer a recognised psychiatric illness given the horrific circumstances of the accident.

Most significantly, the Court specifically rejected the CTP insurer’s arguments that no duty of care should be owed given Mr Caffrey was acting in his capacity as a police officer.

It was held the finding of a duty would not deter members of the public from contacting emergency services following an accident, would not unjustifiably expand the categories of potential claimants in psychiatric injury cases, and despite the training police officers receive to combat these kinds of experiences, the harm was still reasonably foreseeable.

The Court observed that Mr Caffrey’s existing “armour of detachment”, deployed by emergency services in these kinds of situations was “pierced by the intense humanity of the situation”.[2]

What are the consequences of this decision?

Emergency workers may now have a better chance at successfully bringing a claim for psychiatric injury than previously thought.

However, this case correctly highlights that a very unique set of circumstances must be present to satisfy tests established by common law principles to allow such a claim to succeed.

This decision may lead to further exploration of the duty of care owed to first responders, and also other health professional such as nurses, social workers and the like.

A situation may eventuate in which Queensland has to introduce similar legislation as seen in other states that limits the class of people able to bring claims for pure psychiatric harm.

If you have any questions about claims regarding personal or psychiatric injury please contact Trenton Schreurs, Principal.


[1] Caffrey v AAI Limited [2019] QSC 7.

[2] Caffrey v AAI Limited [2019] QSC 7 [146].