On 22 November 2022, the District Court of Queensland held that Aldi was liable to its employee who sustained a back injury while lifting cartons of tinned tomatoes. The worker was awarded $157,767.71 compensation for her back injury. Evolve Legal Practice Leader & Special Counsel Anna Morgan explains why liability for employers can be held when employees sustain injury due to a lack of workplace safety enforcement.
When the plaintiff worker started as a store assistant at Aldi, she took part in induction training. The training involved doing modules on an iPad and training by the manager. 13 months later, she injured her back, lifting three cartons of tinned tomatoes weighing 15 kgs.
If the boss needs the job done quickly, you risk staff taking unsafe shortcuts and liability for employers
No one likes having empty shelves at supermarkets. Unpacking loads quickly was, therefore, essential.
The evidence of the witnesses in the trial demonstrates the importance placed on Aldi’s works to get loads unpacked and onto shelves quickly. The average time to unload a pallet at Aldi was 19 minutes (according to one witness, it used to be 20 minutes, but at the time of the injury, it had dropped to 19 minutes). Standard practice was to periodically time staff to see if they took longer than the average. Management would have discussions with staff if they were outside the standard. Promotions to management roles may have depended on their speed stats.
Against this background, the injured worker picked up three cartons of tinned tomatoes instead of two cartons. The attempt to increase her speed led to her hurting her back.
Should employers emphasise the need for speed or does this increase liability for employers?
The Court accepted the plaintiff’s arguments that a reasonable person in the employer’s shoes would have had a supervision system in place so that they could observe and correct unsafe manual handling practices. The Court also accepted that a reasonable employer would not have emphasised the speed for completion of the task for newer, inexperienced workers. The court noted there was no maximum amount a staff member was permitted to lift on their own.
His Honour Judge Jarro felt that it was effectively left up to individual staff members to determine how much weight they were comfortably lifting at any time. Such practice led to unsafe manual handling practices evolving. In short, there was no or no practical follow-up manual handling training, and management did not supervise the plaintiff. His Honour held that, at a minimum, there should have been instructions given regarding the maximum weight the plaintiff should lift safely by herself and the maximum number of cardboard trays she should lift at any time. Even in the defendant’s pleaded case, this should have been 10 kilograms and two cartons. There needed to be a proper system of supervision to prevent unsafe manual handling practices. Management should have a system to observe or correct the plaintiff.
On this basis, the Court found that Aldi breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff.
But shouldn’t the worker be responsible for lifting three cartons instead of two?
Aldi argued that there should be a “contributory negligence” finding because the worker did not follow the training instructions and did not comply with their safe work system. However, Aldi failed to convince the Court that it should reduce her damages. Judge Jarro criticised the employer for not enforcing its own safety system.
Judge Jarro was, therefore, unable to find that the plaintiff failed to comply with instructions regarding because she lifted more than two cartons of canned tomatoes. His Honour was not satisfied that she disobeyed any instruction given to her by the defendant or undertook an activity involving an obvious risk or failed to account for an obvious risk. He was also not satisfied that she knew she was taking a risk for her safety. The plaintiff’s evidence, which His Honour accepted, was Aldi did not instruct her not to lift more than 10kgs or more than two cartons.
As there was no prohibition on lifting 15kg of tomatoes, and it was never discouraged, Aldi did not convince the Court that no other reasonable employee would not have chosen to lift the three cartons (instead of two).
Monitoring and enforcing compliance with safety requirements is just as important as training
Aldi put a lot of effort into their training, which was systemised and regimented when a new person started. But if compliance with the training is not enforced, it weakens an employer’s defence against workplace injury claims. Also, if the speed of getting the job done is valued more than managing the risk of injury, an employer can be exposed to a negligent claim and have to pay damages.
To read the decision Norsgaard v Aldi Stores (A Limited Partnership)  QDC 260, follow this link: https://archive.sclqld.org.au/qjudgment/2022/QDC22-260.pdf
Evolve Legal – how we can help
Incurring a psychological injury or illness in the workplace can make a huge impact on your quality of life and cause immense stress. Not to mention, the process of making a workplace injury compensation claim is complex and needs to be done correctly.
It is critical to seek legal advice. Evolve Legal’s team of Personal Injury lawyers has specific expertise in representing victims of workplace injury and ensuring liability for employers is held.
We can help make a workers’ compensation claim to obtain the monetary compensation and/or damages that are entitled to a person who suffers a psychological injury or illness while at work.
Our expert personal injury lawyers will facilitate the claim throughout the entire process. It is our goal to ensure the injured person can obtain the treatment they require in order to facilitate their recovery and improve their quality of life.
For further information regarding workplace injury and compensation claims at Evolve Legal please follow this link.
The content of this article is intended to provide general guidance to the subject matter and must not be relied on as legal advice. Specific advice should be sought about your circumstances.