Judge rules injury incurred while carrying out 'very uncomplicated task' was Dunnes Stores worker's 'own fault'

File photo.

A Dunnes Stores worker who received €31,385 in damages arising from bruising her eye when brushing against a cardboard box has had her award overturned on appeal.

In the incident, Corinne Donnelly hurt her eye when taking t-shirts out of a cardboard box while working at Dunnes Stores’ Harvey’s Quay store in Limerick city on June 14, 2014.

In the circuit court, Ms Donnelly was awarded general damages of €19,000 for pain and suffering and €12,385 for out of pocket expenses/special damages.

Ms Donnelly of Shannonbanks, Corbally, Co. Limerick, blamed work pressures on the day as the "legal cause" against Dunnes Stores for injuring herself.

However, Dunnes Stores appealed the award and in his judgement at the High Court sitting in Ennis today, Mr Justice Michael Twomey rejected Ms Donnelly’s claim over work pressures and found that Ms Donnelly bruising her eye when removing the t-shirt from the cardboard box “was her own fault”.

Mr Justice Twomey said that Ms Donnelly had brushed against the cardboard box and said: “It was not her employer's fault that she did this task inadvertently and bruised her eye in the process.”

“If this accident had happened at home, it is likely that it would be regarded as an unfortunate accident arising from Ms Donnelly's lack of attention to her task because she was rushing or otherwise pre-occupied."

"Indeed, in such a scenario, Ms Donnelly might have blamed herself for the accident.”

Mr Justice Twomey said that because the accident occurred in the workplace, Ms Donnelly sought to place legal responsibility for this accident on her employer.

Mr Justice Twomey said if Dunnes wasn’t successful in its appeal the total costs to Dunnes Stores in the case, including two sets of legal costs along with medical costs, would be €40,000 to €50,000.

He said: “It seems to this court that if an employee, such as Ms Donnelly, was to be entitled to fix her employer, whether a multi-national company or an employer of just one or two people, with liability for her lack of due care in emptying a cardboard box, at a cost of up to €50,000 by claiming she felt under pressure at work, this could have a ‘chilling effect’ on small and large businesses throughout the country by virtue of its effect on insurance costs.”

Mr Justice Twomey said that the evidence adduced was that Ms Donnelly was injured when putting her hand into a cardboard box to take t-shirts out of that box and putting them on a shelf at Dunnes Stores.

He said: “She lent too close to the box and her eye came into ‘inadvertent contact’ - to quote her engineer - with the corner of the flap of the cardboard box. She received bruising to her cornea which necessitated her attending hospital as an outpatient, but thankfully, her eye was, for all intents and purposes, fully recovered within a week.

“The cardboard box was a standard cardboard box familiar to most people in this country.

"Putting one's hands into a cardboard box to retrieve an item is a very uncomplicated task and is a task that is performed daily without incident in homes, schools and workplaces throughout this country.”

He added: “While it may seem somewhat surreal to a layperson, in order to substantiate her claim for damages, Ms. Donnelly adduced ‘expert’ evidence from a civil engineer on the taking of t-shirts out of a cardboard box and the duties of an employer to an employee in this regard, on the basis presumably that civil engineers are experts in this area”.

Mr Justice Twomey said that it was the court’s view that as the taking of t-shirts out of a cardboard box is the epitome of an activity which is not complex, “the court is obliged to bring ordinary common sense to bear on what amounts to the exercise of reasonable care by a plaintiff/defendant”.

He said: “In doing so, it seems clear that this Court can give precedence to common sense over alleged ‘expert’ evidence adduced on behalf of the plaintiff on alleged breaches of duty.”

Mr Justice Twomey stated that the court “must also apply some caution to expert opinions where the expert is retained by a plaintiff/defendant with a financial interest in obtaining a report in their favour, since the expert’s view will be informed by the facts which are provided by the party retaining them”.

He said: “This is because, although experts are supposed to be completely independent and owe a duty to the court, more often than not, expert opinions will correspond favourably with the interests of the paying client.”

Mr Justice Twomey said that Ms Donnelly suffered a genuine and unfortunate injury but added that the court has not been convinced that Ms Donnelly was under such pressure and stress at work that, on the balance of probabilities, this was the legal cause of her accident.

He said: “A bald assertion by a plaintiff that she felt under pressure at work followed by an assumption by her expert engineer of negligence/breach of duty is not sufficient to support a claim for damages.”

Awarding costs against Ms Donnelly, Mr Justice Twomey added that even if Ms Donnelly subjectively felt under time pressure on the day in question, the taking of t-shirts out of a cardboard box is the most mundane of tasks.

He said: “It did not involve heavy weights, complex machinery or sharp instruments.”

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