A former shop assistant who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a murder inside the premises of a Topaz filling station in Limerick 11 years ago has been awarded €33,000 in damages.
Theresa Quinn (35) formerly of Kilkeely, Limerick sued her former employer, Topaz Energy Group, for psychological damages arising out of the trauma she suffered from witnessing the fatal shooting of Daniel Tracey (35) at the Topaz filling station in Caherdavin, Limerick on February 22, 2010.
The victim, a bread delivery man, was in conversation with Ms Quinn at the time of the attack. His assailant, John Coughlan (33) of Pineview Gardens, Moyross, was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for Mr Tracey’s murder.
Ms Justice Emily Egan ruled that Topax had acted negligently and in breach of statutory duty by failing to implement its own health and safety protocols by failing to provide the former deli assistant with a mobile panic alarm. The judge said Ms Quinn’s injury was aggravated by her inability to safely seek help.
The court heard that Ms Quinn was left alone in the shop with the assailant as her work colleague had vaulted over the counter in response to the shooting and left the shop without activating its static panic alarm.
Ms Quinn claimed she had suffered avoidable trauma and psychiatric injury because she had no safe means of summoning assistance even though Topaz’s health and safety protocols provided that a mobile panic alarm should have been available.
She also maintained that her trauma and resulting injury were aggravated by a lack of training on how to respond to emergencies. The court heard that Ms Quinn dropped to the floor behind the deli counter and crawled to a storeroom to get her mobile phone as she could not access the shop’s panic alarm.
Ms Quinn claimed she was terrified that the assailant, who was still in the shop and had made no effort to cover his face, might hear her as she called the emergency services in a hushed voice. Her phone also rang several times as an emergency operator had tried to call her back.
At one stage she looked around the cloakroom door and saw Coughlan picking up spent cartridges. She told the court: “I thought I was going to die”.
However, lawyers for Topaz argued that the event, which had all the hallmarks of a contract killing, was entirely unforeseeable and the company could not be held liable for its consequences.
They claimed the plaintiff ought to have known that she should wear a panic alarm and should have been wearing one at the time of the incident.
In her ruling, Ms Justice Emily Egan, said Topaz’s documentation in its Caherdavin premises was ambiguous on the wearing of panic alarms, particularly in relation to deli staff.
The judge noted that mobile panic alarms were kept in a manager’s office but the incident had occurred shortly after 6am before the manager was on the premises.
Ms Justice Egan said it was unreasonable to suggest that Ms Quinn, without prior instructions or permission, should have taken it upon herself to go into the manager’s office to search for a panic alarm. She noted that Ms Quinn had also never been trained in the use of a panic alarm.
The judge said there was no evidence that she had ever been informed by any Topaz manager that, as a deli assistant, she should wear a mobile panic alarm. She said it was reasonable for Ms Quinn to have believed that only staff handling cash needed to carry such equipment.
As a result of her PTSD, the court heard the plaintiff suffered from irritability, depressed mood, hypervigilance, flashbacks, weight loss and panic attacks, while she was unable to go outside her house alone for 18 months after the shooting.
The judge noted that Topaz had been supportive of Ms Quinn when she returned to work around six months after the incident at a different filling station at Dock Road, Limerick. She also observed that the plaintiff had immediately been furnished with a panic alarm on her return to work.
Ms Justice Egan remarked that Ms Quinn was only seeking compensation for the PTSD that was attributable to the additional sense of isolation, vulnerability and panic that she experienced as a result of her inability to safely summon assistance.
The judge awarded the plaintiff a sum of €30,000 in general damages and €3,000 in special damages.