Compensation damages to be paid by American nut conglomerate Hancock Agricultural have been reduced to fit the District Court jurisdictional limit after the court ruled it could not award the full sum assessed arising from the use of unsafe farm equipment.
David Russell claimed to have sustained life-changing neck injuries as a result of being required to crane his neck in an awkward position while operating a tractor driven spray rig over the rough terrain of a central Queensland macadamia orchard in a single shift in September 2008.
Following his six-hour stint in the poorly sprung tractor during which he “started to feel uncomfortable in the neck”, he woke from his sleep in increased pain and then presented at the Bundaberg Hospital.
He has not worked since and in February 2010 commenced a lawsuit for damages against Hancock and WorkCover.
The “extreme posture” required for rearward vision was necessitated – he contended – by the propensity of the fertiliser spray nozzles frequently becoming clogged and the absence of adequate mirrors and lighting to allow monitoring of the rig’s performance from a comfortable and safe cabin position.
The 42-year-old’s claims of physical loads on his musculoskeletal as a result of such contortion were validated by mechanical engineer, Scott Boyd from the Intersafe group.
The court agreed: “requiring a driver of a tractor regularly to twist his head around so he can look to the rear and peer into the darkness in an attempt to see whether a jet of fertiliser is still present when the nozzle is prone to clogging is inherently an obviously an unsafe system of work…. [and] obviously puts additional strain on the neck and is likely to stir up any problems it may already have”.
The court also had no difficulty in linking the events of that single shift – on the balance of probabilities – as causing the symptoms for which he sought medical treatment the following day and which have been a consistent income depriving medical issue for him since.
But while the court accepted that he was virtually unemployable, it refused his lawyers’ $470k ask for future weekly income losses over 24 years of $850 preferring instead, a global award of a mere $100k.
The total assessment after the WorkCover refund was $276k but the judgment was reduced to the court’s upper jurisdictional limit – as at the date of commencement of proceedings – of $250k plus interest, a total of $265k.
Russell regrettably saw no benefit from the increase in the District Court damages limit to $750,000 that occurred in 2012. One wonders why then, he was arguing for total damages of around $600k.
Hancock Agricultural is related to the John Hancock group and is one of the world’s largest agricultural asset managers with more than $1.8 billion of farm assets under its control, mainly for the benefit of institutional investors.