Liability for assaults on employees
There are two recent cases, one of them ours.
In the first Dobbs J dealt with a claim against a local authority for damages arising out of two incidents at the claimant’s place of work. She was employed as an assistant head teacher at a special school catering for pupils with severe learning difficulties and autistic spectrum disorder. The two incidents involved a pupil who suffered from global development delay with challenging and emotionally disturbed behaviour.
In the first incident he escaped from the classroom and ran into the kitchen and then reached over a pan of boiling water on the cooker to get some food. The claimant pulled him away and in doing so wrenched her left arm and shoulder.
The second incident occurred when the claimant and an assistant went on a short errand just outside the school walls with three pupils including the same pupil in the first incident. He pulled away from the claimant and jumped onto a car bonnet and began hitting the window. She tried to pull him off and he grabbed her clothing and pulled at her left arm causing her pain.
She claimed that the employers failed to exercise reasonable care and skill for her health and safety and to operate a safe system of work. The school had sought one-to-one funding for the pupil in 2001 following an incident when he pushed a classroom assistant into a window.
The Judge rejected her claim. The evidence was that the pupil did receive one-to-one supervision most of the time. When the incident occurred the claimant herself had been working with him on a one-to-one basis, and it could be inferred that the same applied in the second incident. If she had not been in a one-to-one situation at that time, she would have known not to take him out of the school since she knew that he required one-to-one supervision.
It was difficult to see how induction training would have made any difference. There was a health and safety policy which included consideration of the risk of violence. Staff were clearly aware of the need to fill in incident sheets. The local authority had not been negligent or in breach of contract in failing to exercise reasonable care for her health and safety.
Verbal and physical abuse
The second case involved a senior psychiatric nurse who was assaulted in the course of his duties by a patient with a history of violence, illicit drug use, alcohol abuse and absconding. He had gone AWOL and a press release had been issued saying that the public should be aware of him as he was dangerous and potentially psychotic. The patient saw the broadcast.
Before returning to the premises a meeting was held and a risk assessment was carried out. It was decided that he was dangerous and psychotic and was also at high risk of mental relapse. The patient returned to the ward where he was examined by a doctor. The patient said he was unhappy that it had been broadcast that he was dangerous.
He was still angry the next day, attacking a drinks machine and a telephone. He then attempted to assault the senior male nurse on the ward. When the claimant started work at 1.30pm that day he was aware of the events that morning. There was then an incident of verbal abuse about the Claimant, although the claimant was unaware that he had been the subject of the verbal abuse as staff had not told him.
Shortly afterwards the patient struck the claimant with such force that he was knocked to the ground and suffered a fracture to the nose, needing two operations, and significant psychological symptoms.
The judge found that the Trust was negligent and that the negligence comprised in the failure of the employees to inform the claimant of the verbal abuse. Had they done so the claimant would have been aware that he had been singled out and that there was heightened risk that he may be assaulted by the patient and that such risk was over and above the ordinary risk of assault that every member of staff faced on that ward.
The defendants had failed in their duty to continually assess the risk on an event by event basis.