Written by Peter CarterJanuary 26, 2013
Prisoner John Coffey was rewarded just prior to Christmas, with the Court of Appeal upping the damages the State must pay him as a result of over-aggressive prison treatment more than 10 years earlier.
The Supreme Court had ruled in June that he be paid $30,000 for compensatory, aggravated and exemplary damages by reason of the conduct of corrective service personnel in a forced hair extraction for the purpose of obtaining his genetic data for a police DNA database.
After refusing to supply a consensual sample, but offering no resistance other than trying to stay upright, he was pushed to the ground “driving his unprotected head face first into the hard floor”. The face-first impact caused a gash above his left eye and rendered him unconscious.
Coffey’s June judgement included exemplary damages of $12,000, which he claimed on appeal were inadequate, in that the modest allowance “failed in the purpose of exemplary damages, to sting and to deter similar conduct in the future”.
The three appeal judges unanimously agreed to note that: “The battery was a significant one, sufficient to leave the appellant unconscious; that in itself was some measure of head injury. The exercise was carried out with a signal disregard for the appellant’s safety and wellbeing. It should have been apparent that he had been injured. Even once he had been rendered unconscious, the officers did not move promptly to assist him”.
Because exemplary damages should be used to mark the Court’s “strong disapproval” of the actions constituting the battery, they found the trial judge had “erred in the exercise of his discretion” and increased the exemplary damages figure to $24,000.
Coffey’s self-represented appeal also succeeded against the police sergeant who supervised the exercise and who was shown on video in a “casual and somewhat disrespectful” movement, half kicking Coffey’s legs together while he was prone and unconscious.
For this “minor battery” an award of $600 was allowed but having failed against the policeman at trial, even this small sum opens up an opportunity for Coffey to better the trial judge’s ruling his cost recovery was to be limited to only 50% of his total.
Coffey’s total judgement was increased to nearly $44,000 with any argument on costs still to come.
Coffey v State of Queensland & Ors  QCA 368 Brisbane Margaret McMurdo P and Holmes and White JJA 21/12/2012