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Goodchild v Organon Laboratories Ltd, High Court, 20 October 2004

29 October 2004
The issues

Contributory Negligence – Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 – Risk Assessment – Lifting Accident

The facts

The Claimant was employed by the Defendant as a “Woman’s Health Hospital Representative”. She had been employed since June 1997. She had previously worked as a registered general nurse. She had had induction training with Organon but there was no consideration of health and safety issues or advice given as to proper manual handling procedures.

As part of her duties she had to attend various locations within East Anglia giving and assisting in demonstrations or presentations of products to the medical profession.

Often the boxes of the necessary products were heavy and in general terms the Claimant had to load the boxes into her car and drive to a venue. At the venue she was responsible for unloading the boxes and setting up the demonstration. In June 1999 she had surgery. She returned to work in September 1999 but in considerable discomfort. The company replaced her manual car with an automatic car following a recommendation by her doctor.

In December 1999 she had further surgery and again experienced a lot of discomfort afterwards. She was advised by her gynaecologist not to lift anything for 6 weeks and to be careful how she bent over in the early stages of her recovery to protect the repair site. She was told it would take 6 months before she would feel fully fit.

She told her employer. Her Line Manager was informed that she would not be able to lift or carry. She returned to work in March 2000. By November 2000 she felt fully recovered. In March on her return she had been seen by the company doctor who noted that she was capable of fulfilling her full time job provided that she was not to do any lifting.

She was given on her return to work a trolley and an informal system of physical help developed with other members of the team in which she worked such that she would be able to avoid lifting whenever possible. On 15th November she lifted a box of equipment weighing 52 pounds onto a table in order to unpack it for the demonstration. In the hotel were three other employers of Organon. The Claimant was anxious to start setting up. However, her Line Manager asked her to wait in the lounge until a meeting he and the others were engaged in were finished. That meeting did not finish until 5pm, an hour before the meeting was due to start. The Claimant was anxious about the time. She therefore set about setting up with one other Organon employee. The other employee, Miss Frost who was assisting left the box in question on the floor and told the Claimant that he was going to set up his own stand in the reception area.

The Claimant looked at the box and saw nothing on it to indicate the weight of its contents. She lifted it and as she did, felt a sharp pain in her back and leg. Over the next few days’ pain continued and developed. On 20th November she telephoned her Line Manager to say she would be unable to come into work.

On 22nd November she reported the incident to Organon’s Head Office. She brought an action for personal injuries against her employer alleging that the Defendant had breached Regulation 4(1)(a) of the 1992 Regulations ie the obligation on the part of an employer so far as is reasonably practicable to avoid the need for employees to undertake any manual handling operations at work which involved a risk of their being injured. She also relied on a breach of 4.1(b) namely failing to make any suitable and sufficient risk assessment or providing information with regard to the weight of each load.

The decision

Organon had failed to avoid as far as was reasonably practicable the need for the Claimant to undertake the manual handling operation of lifting the box weighing 52 pounds.

Had the Claimant stopped to consider how heavy the box was likely to be she might have thought twice about lifting it. However her failure to consider the matter was akin to momentary inattention or carelessness rendered understandable because of the pressure of time she was under. An employer could not escape liability for breach of statutory duty unless he could prove that his breach of duty was co-extensive with employee’s own negligence or breach of duty and that he had done all that he reasonably could to ensure compliance with the Regulations by the employee. (See O’Neill v DSG Retail Limited). The purpose of the Regulations was to protect workers against those acts of inattention or carelessness that was sometimes relied upon as contributory negligence. (See Staveley Iron & Chemical Company Limited v Jones).

The Claimant could not be criticised for failing to seek assistance or for deciding to lift the box onto the table to unpack it. She did not consciously accept the risk of injuring her back by lifting a box she knew to be too heavy. Had she stopped to consider the matter more carefully, she might have sought help. To that limited extent she was partly responsible and contributory negligence would be assessed at 10%.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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