Moorehouse v Governor of Wheatfield Prison

JurisdictionIreland
CourtHigh Court
JudgeMr. Justice Bernard J. Barton
Judgment Date15 July 2017
Neutral Citation[2017] IEHC 535
Date15 July 2017
Docket Number[2015 No. 5534 P.]

[2017] IEHC 535

THE HIGH COURT

Barton J.

[2015 No. 5534 P.]

BETWEEN
FELIX MOOREHOUSE
PLAINTIFF
AND
THE GOVERNOR OF WHEATFIELD PRISON, THE MINISTER FOR JUSTICE, EQUALITY AND LAW REFORM, IRELAND

AND

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
DEFENDANTS

Tort – Damages & Restitution – Breach of statutory duty – Amputation of fingers – Injury in prison – Onus of proof – Manner of injury – Safety, Health and Welfare Work Act, 2005 – Contributory negligence

Facts: The plaintiff had filed a claim for damages against the State defendants. The plaintiff being a prisoner contended that he had suffered amputation of his four fingers of the left hand while using the Minicrop sheer and punch machine at the prison facility. The plaintiff averred that on the subject day, many prisoners, except the plaintiff, were told that the said machine had been out of order and thus, the defendants were liable to pay damages to the plaintiff under the Safety, Health and Welfare Work Act, 2005. The defendants denied the liability and argued that since the plaintiff had operated the said machine contrary to the prescribed conditions, he was the creator of his own injuries and thus, the plaintiff's claim should have been dismissed.

Mr. Justice Bernard J. Barton dismissed the plaintiff's claim. The Court noted that despite the fact that there were shortcomings in the supervision of prison workshop by the first named defendant; the manner of operating the said machine by the plaintiff had been incorrect. The Court held that the plaintiff's fingers would not have been crushed under the machine had he not positioned his hand on the bar with the palm upwards. The Court found that the plaintiff had failed to discharge the onus that the accident did not happen in the manner explained by the experts and thus, the plaintiff could not have succeeded.

JUDGMENT of Mr. Justice Bernard J. Barton delivered on the 15th day of July, 2017
General
1

Constructed in 1989, Wheatfield was the first purpose built work and training correctional facility in the State. It was established with the objective of fostering the rehabilitation of prisoners in a caring environment concomitant with the mission statement of the Irish Prison Service (IPS).

2

The educational and vocational facilities provided include a school, laundry, restaurant as well as self-contained computer skills and industrial skills workshops where externally accredited European norm and City and Guilds courses are offered to prisoners commensurate with their vocational needs and abilities. Prisoners wishing to avail of these facilities may apply to transfer from other prisons to Wheatfield.

3

On arrival, each prisoner is interviewed by the nurse manager who completes an Irish Prison Service (IPS) Nursing Committal Interview (NCIF) Form. This is followed relatively quickly by a vocational interview which is conducted by the Industrial Training Manager (ITM), who completes an IPS Work and Training Committal Interview Form (WTCIF). If found suitable the prisoner is offered a choice of educational and vocational courses.

4

Doing nothing in Wheatfield is not an option; every prisoner is assigned to school or his chosen course. If found to be unsuitable or if he fails to participate in or cooperate with the rehabilitation programme to which he has been assigned the prisoner is sent back to the prison from which he transferred. Unless excused for some good reason, such as illness, prisoners are not permitted to doss in their cells during schooling or course training hours; they may attend the course or the school or the gym or engage in some other designated activity but when called to do so by the class officer they must move off the cell landing.

5

Save in exceptional circumstances, such as where there is a medical concern that a prisoner might not be physically or mentally fit to participate in one or more of the work and training courses on offer, information on personal/medical status obtained at the NCI is not shared with the ITM or other training staff at any time.

6

In 2008 an assumption was made by the non-medical prison staff that any given prisoner could be using illicit drugs and / or could be on a methadone treatment programme facilitated by the prison. It was not unusual for upwards of a quarter of the prison population to be using illicit and/ or controlled drugs; at the time, intermittent screening of prisoners for drugs was undertaken by way of urine sampling.

7

Literacy problems and learning difficulties are also features common to the prison population; prison officers and training staff proceed on the working assumption that a significant proportion of prisoners under their care have such difficulties; the Plaintiff was one such prisoner.

8

Born on the 14th September, 1982, the Plaintiff is separated and has two children. His childhood home was a halting site in Carrickmines, County Dublin. He was illiterate and innumerate on leaving school aged eleven when he went to help out in his father's scrap metal business and with his horses. The only vocational training he received involved attendance at a practical welding course in Bray Co. Wicklow, run by FAS for members of the travelling community on foot of which he obtained a certificate in practical welding.

9

In addition to his educational and social disadvantages, all aspects of the Plaintiff's personal, family, social and vocational life have been blighted by habitual drug abuse which commenced when aged 18 as result of which he developed an addiction to heroin which cost between two and three hundred Euro per day.

10

Against this background it is perhaps unsurprising that the Plaintiff fell into criminality and has been convicted of serious offences for which he has served several terms of imprisonment, the most recent of which was for aggravated burglary and during which the trial in these proceedings took place.

11

On the 27th November 2008, while also serving a sentence for burglary in Wheatfield, the Plaintiff's misfortunes took a turn for the worst when he suffered a traumatic amputation to the fingers of his left hand while using a GEKA Minicrop sheer and punch machine in the metal welding workshop of the prison; liability for the accident is fully contested.

12

Although there was controversy between the parties on a number of matters concerning the circumstances leading up to, at the time of and after the accident, the Court considers that on any view of the evidence the following issues, observations and findings, discussed in greater detail later, maybe usefully identified and stated at the outset:

(i) The cutting/cropping and punch facilities constituted dangerous parts of the GEKA Minicrop which required guarding to minimise or avoid the risk of injury; the opening to the cropping facility was designed and fitted with an adjustable device known as a hold down guide which also served as a safety guard (the guide-guard);

(ii) At the time of the accident the Plaintiff's left hand was in the pathway of the shear blades of the machine, the guide guard had been removed; the identity of the individual and responsibility for the removal of the guide-guard was in question;

(iii) The Plaintiff and Jonathan Nicholson, the Industrial Training Instructor (ITI) with responsibility for supervision and training in the workshop, denied removing the guide-guard;

(iv) If fitted and properly adjusted, the guide-guard would have prevented any part of the Plaintiff's hand entering the cropping compartment to the point where it would have been in the path of travel of the shear blades; the injuries could not have been sustained had the guide-guard been so positioned;

(v) The guide-guard was not a fixed guard; it was adjustable and removable without the use of a tool;

(vi) The cropping facility could be operated without the guide-guard in position; consequently, the cropping blades were exposed, accessible and clearly visible to the operator and anyone supervising the operation of the machine;

(vii) Shortly before the accident a problem had arisen when two other prisoners were using the cropping facility as a result of which the steel flat or stock bar (steel bar) which they were trying to cut jammed between the cropper blades;

(viii) Following report to him of the problem, ITI Nicholson removed the steel bar; whether or not the machine had been completely switched off by him, it had not been not locked out in a way which prevented it from being restarted;

(ix) The machine was supplied and fitted with a lock out facility in the form of a pad lockable device; in practice, this was not utilised prior to the accident by either the training staff or by those servicing the machine and was not fitted on the day of the accident;

(x) On the afternoon of the accident there were thirteen prisoners present in the welding workshop; whether the Plaintiff was actively participating in his course or whether he had been assigned to sweeping duties because the available welding booths were already occupied was in question; the Plaintiff claimed he was on his welding course;

(xi) The instruction and supervision ratio of staff to prisoners considered appropriate by the IPS was eight to one; whether or not Prison Officer Vincent Maher was in the workshop with ITI Nicholson on the afternoon of the accident was in question; the Plaintiff claimed he did not see him there at any time before the accident; Officer Maher said he was present and gave instructions to the Plaintiff;

(xii) At the time of the accident neither ITI Nicholson, Officer Maher or any other member of the prison staff was present in the work and training area where the Plaintiff and the other prisoners were working; the period of absence was in question; The Plaintiff claimed that the area was unsupervised for 10 or 15 minutes at least whereas ITI Nicholson and Officer Maher claimed it was...

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2 cases
  • Moorehouse v The Governor of Wheatfield Prison
    • Ireland
    • High Court
    • 8 March 2021
    ...not proposed to repeat in extenso the findings of fact which I made in my judgment delivered the 15th August 2017 (see neutral citation [2017] IEHC 535); rather these will be referred to where necessary in relation to the first issue and, if appropriate, in relation to the determination of ......
  • Moorehouse v Governor of Wheatfield Prison
    • Ireland
    • Court of Appeal (Ireland)
    • 31 July 2020
    ...of Ms. Justice Costello delivered on the 31st day of July 2020 1 This is an appeal from the decision of Barton J. in the High Court ( [2017] IEHC 535) dated 15 August 2017, dismissing the plaintiff's claim for damages for personal injuries suffered by him allegedly due to the negligence and......

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