When an extraction unit at Boral’s Coffs Harbour asphalt plant failed in June 2006, it called in a crane crew to provide a safe platform for its maintenance staff to gain access near the roof.
The two crew from North Coast Cranes came with a 15 tonne truck mounted unit and all the necessary equipment.
The crane was intended to hoist Boral employee Matthew Coote in a workbox up the 15 m height to clear a blockage in the extraction unit.
North Coast’s crane man Mark French operated the unit while his colleague, rigger Brendan Currie, accompanied Coote in the workbox.
Coote worked away but after 45 minutes or so, he requested the jib be adjusted to lower the workbox by a metre or so. French raised the jib slightly to enable the lowering to occur, when suddenly the crate crashed to the ground while still attached to the crane’s jib. Coote and Currie – neither of whom were issued any fall protection equipment – both suffered serious injuries.
Crane expert Jonathan O’Brien concluded the clutch and brake system failed probably as a result of wear in the hydraulic valve and on that basis Coote filed a claim against S & P Jackson Pty Ltd – owners of North Coast – alleging poor maintenance.
Jackson’s engineering expert Paul Keim attributed the malfunction to a contaminant – perhaps a grain of sand – lodging itself between the poppet and the valve seat.
When Coote’s claim for injury compensation came before the NSW District court, Judge Judith Gibson considered neither theory any more probable than the other. And had the failure been caused by a contaminant rather than wear, it could never have been discovered by even the most diligent operator employing the best of service or maintenance programs and was therefore not “foreseeable”.
The “conflicting inferences of equal degree of probability” meant the sub-standard maintenance argument could not succeed.
Sensing such finding, Coote’s legal team made an amendment request on the third day of the hearing to allege negligent “operation” of the crane – among other things because an ‘accumulator’ had not been used to maintain hydraulic pressure – in addition to the negligent “maintenance” already contended.
But that argument never saw the light of day with the court refusing to allow additional allegations to be made at such a late stage.
The refusal of Matthew Coote’s claim on that basis was confirmed by the New South Wales Court of Appeal.
Coote v S & P Jackson Pty Ltd  NSWCA 385 Macfarlan JA Barrett JA and Leeming JA 10/1/2014
– view decision