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Norfolk Cop Fall: Media Hype or Another UK #Police #Fail

Health and Safety Sign at Bowes Castle

You could be forgiven for thinking the story about a cop suing a burglary victim, after she tripped and hurt her leg at the scene of the crime, was an April fools’ joke…

Apart from the fact the story actually hit the media at the end of March (as far as I can ascertain) and despite the time of release, it’s actually one of ten silly stories that are actually true. Given my time with the Police Federation and my Health & Safety background I simply couldn’t resist commenting on the story (see below).

A police officer is suing a petrol station owner after apparently tripping on a kerb on his property when called to reports of a suspected break-in…(bbc.co.uk)

But despite all the astonishment and mirth generated by the story; should a police officer be allowed (or willing) to make a claim for injuries received whilst at work?

It’s not common, I appreciate that, but the claim has come in and we’ve honoured the officer’s wishes by putting it through to the solicitor…(Paul Ridgway – Chairman, Norfolk Police Federation)

The chief constable of Norfolk Constabulary said he was “disappointed” that one of his officers is pursuing a claim and obviously, the owner of the petrol station isn’t too happy about the situation either.

Chief moves to reassure public: This type of claim does not represent the approach and attitude of the overwhelming majority of our staff who understand and accept the risks inherent in policing and which they willingly confront to keep the public they serve safe..(Chief Constable Phil Gormley)

With the backlash of adverse public opinion and levels of media interest, it’s hardly surprising the Chief was quick to condemn the actions of his officer. It really doesn’t fit what the public (rightly or wrongly) expect of their police service, does it?

Now, less than 48hrs after the story broke, and was almost instrumental in a social and regular media meltdown, it now transpires the officer intends to withdraw her claim against the garage owner (see here). Speaking to The Mirror, Mr Danny Harle, the officer’s father was quoted as saying…

She’s being treated like a criminal but actually she’s the opposite – a single mum who looks after two daughters as well as working. Kelly wants to drop the claim to prove she is not a money grabber, not because she feels she’s done anything wrong…(Danny Harle)

Irrespective of all the contrived hype and opinionated comment in the media about this story; what about the facts of this incident?

  1. Since the Police (Health and Safety) Act 1997, all police officers are defined as being ‘employees’ and ‘at work’ while on duty and consequently, they are (rightly) protected, just like all other employees, under current Health & Safety legislation.
  2. The Police (Health and Safety) Regulations 1999 applies the provisions of all existing health and safety regulations to police officers.
  3. The officer involved was at work when she was injured. The officer was injured whilst carrying out a task on behalf of her employer. An employee is owed a duty of care by his/her employer.
  4. The owner of the garage may have a duty of care to anyone entering their premises however; that duty is based around the management of reasonably foreseeable risk and the application of reasonable control measures to prevent any injury being caused i.e sensible (and effective) risk management.
  5. The injury suffered by the officer has (possibly) caused her financial hardship.

It’s a well-known fact in the world of Health & Safety: slips, trips and falls combined account for “more than half of all reported major injuries” and “almost a third of over-3-day injuries” to employees at work (source HSE).

The officer couldn’t just write off the accident as an insignificant incident: Due to the circumstances surrounding the officer’s injury, she (and her employer) were (at the time of the accident), legally required to make a report about the accident. This is a provision contained within the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR).

Health & Safety Law: The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is criminal law aimed at protecting employees and others who may be affected by work activities. Health and safety legislation does not, in general, impose duties upon someone who is not an employer, self-employed or an employee (e.g. the garage owner). It is not possible to sue for damages under the HSW Act itself however; a breach of health and safety regulations may be cited as part of a civil claim for compensation based on a breach of statutory duty.

Duty of Care under Civil Law: Under the common law, all individuals (not just employers) have a duty of care to each other and to others who may be affected by their activities. Where something goes wrong, individuals may, in some cases, sue for damages using the civil law if they are injured as a result of another person’s negligence.

Note: for a negligence claim to succeed, the injured person must show that the defendant had a duty to take reasonable care towards them, and they have suffered the injury through a breach of that duty. The injured person must also show that the type of loss or injury for which damages are being claimed was a foreseeable result of the duty breach.

My personal views and observations:

This incident was an easy bandwagon for the media to climb aboard, especially given the (apparent) April Fools’ opportunity. It was also one which was bound to accelerate at a phenomenal rate, given the propensity for police and/or Elf ‘n’ Safety bashing, so often favoured by our media.

In the majority of articles that I saw (and the subsequent comments); there was hardly any coverage about the legalities involved in the incident. When there was, we were subjected to numerous assumptions of guilt, in relation to both the garage owner and (sadly) on behalf of the officer. Nearly all of that coverage was (a)  either intentionally only partly right or simply ill-informed and (b) were presumptions about the (desired) outcomes from a court of law; always assuming that the case actually arrived at court in the first place.

Do I think the officer was right to pursue a claim? No, but I can fully understand her possible difficulties, especially if she had suffered financially because of an injury received at work. But it is always difficult striking a balance between operational and Health & Safety duty.

Do I believe that the garage owner (or her employer) were legally responsible for the officer’s injuries? No, I couldn’t (hopefully) envisage any court of law establishing that either party had breached their statutory duty of care, to an individual or to an employee.

Do I think the garage owner should have better managed the ‘risk’ ? No, as far as I can ascertain, there would have been little if anything he could have done to prevent the officer falling. He might have placed floodlights around all of his garage premises during the night, he could have placed trip hazard warning signs all over the place and he could have painted all of the curbs with black/yellow hazard hatching marks. Would that have been reasonable? Probably not and would certainly have been expensive. Would those actions have fitted within the principles of sensible risk management? Again I would say, probably not.

As one commentator to an article I saw wrote; “why wasn’t she watching where she was going and/or carrying a torch?” Perhaps the only duty of care breached here was the one that the officer owed to herself?

All that being said, when attempting to effectively manage risk one should always remember; preventing accidents usually also requires that you should try to manage human failures. You need to understand the risk management principles; never ignore the inherent human factors involved e.g. possible fatigue, one often experienced by shift workers, as in this case however; the majority of this type of risk management is morstly within the remit of the employer, as opposed to the garage owner.

Fatigue results in slower reactions, reduced ability to process information, memory lapses, absent-mindedness, decreased awareness, lack of attention, underestimation of risk, reduced coordination etc…(Source HSE)

Thankfully some elements of the media machine actually managed a somewhat less damaging and little more satirical viewpoint on the matter…

Were you injured and would like to claim compensation? Get over it! – If you ask me, the story of the policewoman who, called to investigate a suspected burglary, fell over an on-site kerb and is currently suing the owner of the property, certainly adds to the impression we are now a nation drowning in absurd lawsuits brought about by stupid, greedy people with no sense of personal responsibility and, in some instances, a passion for bogus whiplash…(Deborah RossThe Independent)

Like Ms Ross (and undoubtedly many others), “I am as fearful of all this litigation as anyone” else; the inherent greed in much of our society tends to be the fuel that ignites the misapplication of Health & Safety legislation and guidance. I think her idea about trying to balance it all with a new company called, Stuff Happens So Get Over It, is a great idea and one that has a good chance of rapid expansion… Any chance of a job Deborah?