October 5, 2021

A Far North Queensland farm worker has won a substantial payout for being injured on the job by a falling banana tree as a result of inadequate training.

Jaime Longbottom – then 30 years old – had worked on the L & R Collins banana plantation near Cooktown for about 3 months before his June 2016 accident.

He was put to work as a “humper”, catching bananas as they were cut from the tree.

Collins’ method of harvesting is for the cutter to make a small incision with a cane knife in the trunk of the tree or the stalk of the bunch so – either way – it bends slowly in the direction the bunch is hanging. The humper then grasps the bunch and guides it onto his shoulder. Once the humper has “taken the weight” of the bunch on his shoulder, he signals the cutter to make the final cut. The imperative is to protect the bunch from hitting the ground, bruising the fruit.

On the day of his accident, more workers were trucked to the plantation to assist with harvesting to fill a large order. Jaime was asked to hump for a cutter he did not know.

He lent his freshly sharpened cane knife to the cutter to lower a very large bunch on a tree that was unusually tall. He could not reach the bottom of the bunch even with his 6’ 2’’ height.

With his attention focused on the bunch awaiting its slow descent so he could control it onto his shoulder, he missed seeing the cutter – instead of making a small incision – make one larger cut that caused the tree to suddenly snap and fall.

Jaime caught the tree and bunch on his right shoulder and was knocked to the ground under their weight.

Later that day, he was rushed to Cooktown Hospital and doctors found multiple injuries to his right hip and right shoulder.

About a week later, James returned to his family in Sydney where he was diagnosed in September 2016 with a labral tear in the right hip and shortly after – by different orthopaedic surgeon – with a “slap” tear of the labrum of the right shoulder and a dislocation of the acromioclavicular joint. He underwent surgery for that condition and a rotator cuff repair and ligament reconstruction in April 2017.

The development of adhesive capsulitis in the right shoulder led to anxiety, depression and panic attacks which affected not only his health and wellbeing but his earning capacity as well.

He has not returned to work.

Jaime’s lawsuit alleged Collins – one of the largest banana operations in the country with more than 1150 acres under cultivation – had been negligent by failing to adequately train him or the cutter in a safe method of harvesting larger than usual bunches of bananas from taller than usual trees.

L&R Collins, headed by Leon Collins – deputy chair of the Australian Banana Growers’ Council – rebuffed that allegation and asserted Jaime had been contributorily negligent by failing to keep his eyes on the cutter and failing to stand clear of the bunch when it began to come down faster than normal. He should – the employer alleged – have let it fall to the ground.

When the matter came before Chief Justice Cate Holmes for a three-day trial in June, she concluded the tree had fallen immediately and without warning because the cutter “made far too deep a cut” as a result of “lack of training or lack of skill”.

That said, she ruled that “ordinary prudence would indicate the danger of not standing back” and being on lookout while the first cut was made to a larger tree.

As a result, Jaime was held to have disregarded an obvious risk and “failed to take reasonable care for his own safety”. Liability was thus apportioned 90% to the employer because the accident was “primarily due to the negligence of the cutter” and 10% to Jaime.

Most heads of damages were agreed between the parties except for those relating to past income loss and future loss of earning capacity.

Orthopaedists James Bodel of Sydney and Morgan of Brisbane agreed the worker to be permanently unfit for a labouring role.

Psychiatrists Ben Duke and Jeffrey Bertucen differed as to the extent to which his depression and concentration problems would impede a return to work.

Occupational therapist Vanessa Aitken observed that Jaime was no longer suited to any occupation for which he had any previous training or experience and was now best suited to sedentary occupations, for which he would need to re-train. “He would be at a significant disadvantage on the open labour market,” she observed.

Her Honour allowed past economic loss at $500 net per week – being the mid-point between his average nett income with Collins and what he earned in previous years – to arrive at a past loss figure of $138k.

Assessing a residual earing capacity of $250/week, future loss of earning capacity was allowed at $412k.

Jaime’s total assessment was $759k which after deduction of 10% came to $683k. Because he had already received $200k in WorkCover benefits, Collins – or rather its insurer – was ordered to pay him the balance of $483k.

Longbottom v L & R Collins Pty Ltd [2021] QSC 242 Holmes CJ, 28 September 2021

Categories: Inadequate training , Farm worker injury

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