Moorehouse v Governor of Wheatfield Prison

JurisdictionIreland
CourtCourt of Appeal (Ireland)
JudgeMs. Justice Costello
Judgment Date31 July 2020
Neutral Citation[2020] IECA 218
Docket NumberCourt of Appeal Record No. 2017/499
Date31 July 2020

[2020] IECA 218

THE COURT OF APPEAL

Edwards J.

Costello J.

Donnelly J.

Court of Appeal Record No. 2017/499

High Court Record No. 2010/5534P

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

AND

THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
DEFENDANTS/RESPONDENTS

Personal injuries – Damages – Negligence – Appellant seeking to appeal from the judgment and orders of the High Court dismissing the appellant’s claim for damages for personal injuries suffered by him allegedly due to the negligence and breach of duty of the respondents – Whether the appellant had discharged the onus of proof

Facts: The plaintiff/appellant, Mr Moorehouse, appealed to the Court of Appeal from the judgment and orders of the High Court (Barton J), dismissing the plaintiff’s claim for damages for personal injuries suffered by him allegedly due to the negligence and breach of duty (including statutory duty) of the defendants/respondents, the Governor of Wheatfield Prison, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Ireland and the Attorney General, and each of them, their servants or agents; and further refusing the defendants’ application for their costs and making no order as to the costs of the proceedings. The judgment appealed against was delivered on the 15th of August 2017, and the order of dismissal arising consequentially therefrom, and ancillary orders, also appealed against, were made on the 3rd of October 2017 and perfected on the 6th of October 2017. The core issue on this appeal related to the onus of proof on the plaintiff, and whether he had discharged it.

Held by Edwards J that the High Court judge erred in law and on the facts in concluding that the plaintiff’s claim should be dismissed by reason of the fact the accident, the subject matter of the proceedings, did not occur exactly as described by the plaintiff, in circumstances where he found breach of statutory duty on the part of the defendants in the absence of which breach the accident would not have occurred. Edwards J held that the High Court judge failed to have due regard to the fact that but for the breach of statutory duty on the part of the defendants, as found by the High Court judge, the accident would not have occurred. Edwards J held that the High Court judge erred in law and on the facts in finding that because the accident had not “occurred in the way, manner and circumstances described in evidence”, the plaintiff’s claim should be dismissed. Edwards J held that this was inconsistent with the High Court judge’s conclusion and acceptance: “That the plaintiff experiences and has experienced memory difficulties was readily apparent from his evidence and the way in which that was given, difficulties which may be attributable one suspects, at least in part, to his drug addiction” (para. 94). Edwards J held that it was further inconsistent with the conclusion of the judge: “Having had an opportunity to observe his demeanour as he gave his evidence I am not satisfied that the plaintiff intentionally set out to mislead the experts to whom he spoke or this Court especially when, as they must be, the obvious deficiencies in his memory, educational and social background circumstances are taken into account” (para. 97).

Edwards J held that he would allow the appeal and quash the order dismissing the plaintiff’s claim. Further, Edwards J held that he would remit the matter to the High Court to be resumed and progressed to a conclusion in the light of that order.

Appeal allowed.

JUDGMENT 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 breach of duty (including statutory duty) of the defendants and their servants or agents. For consistency with the judgment of Edwards J. delivered in this appeal, I shall refer to the appellant as the “plaintiff” and the respondents as the “defendants”.

The background
2

The facts of this case are tragic and describe a terrible accident resulting in horrific, life-changing injuries to the plaintiff while he was a prisoner and under the care of the first named defendant. The trial judge has set out, in considerable detail, the facts of the case which should be read in conjunction with this judgment. I confine myself in this judgment to those facts which are relevant to this judgment.

3

The plaintiff was an inmate in Wheatfield Prison on 27 November 2008 when the fingers of his left hand were accidentally, traumatically amputated while he was attending a training workshop at the prison. He has been disadvantaged and faced challenges his entire life. He was illiterate and innumerate on leaving school at the age of eleven. The only vocational training he ever received was a practical welding course run by FAS for members of the travelling community. The trial judge held that all aspects of the plaintiff's personal, family, social and vocational life have been blighted by habitual drug abuse, which commenced when aged eighteen. He had been convicted of serious offences and served several terms of imprisonment when the case came on for trial.

4

Prisoners at Wheatfield attended a training workshop at the prison where they can attain qualifications in welding. This involved learning how to cut or crop steel bars into shorter lengths of steel which are then used by the trainees for welding. There was a cutting/cropping and punching machine in the workshop known as the GEKA Minicrop which was used to cut lengths of steel bars which could then be welded by the participants as part of their training. The GEKA was fitted with an adjustable device known as a hold-down guide which serves as a safety guide. The guide guard was adjustable and removable, without the use of a tool. The cropping facility could be operated without the guide guard in position and consequently the cropping blades were exposed, accessible and clearly visible to the operator and anyone supervising the operation of the GEKA. When the guard is absent it is possible to insert a hand into the cutting space.

5

Prisoners were given training on the use of the GEKA and once they had shown that they were competent in the use of the machine, they could use it without seeking permission from the supervising officers.

6

On the day in question, a problem arose with the GEKA. Two other prisoners were using the cropping facility, as a result of which a steel bar which they were trying to cut jammed between the cropper blades. The problem was reported to the Supervisor, Industrial Training Instructor (ITI) Nicholson. He removed the steel bar and instructed Prison Officer Maher to make sure that no one used the machine. ITI Nicholson left the workshop and went to the office to obtain an out of order sign to place on the GEKA. He was delayed for a short while by a telephone call.

7

Prisoners in the vicinity of the GEKA were instructed not to go near the machine, but those working elsewhere in the workshop would not have been aware that the machine was out of order and was not to be used. Prisoners who had been trained and had demonstrated competence in the operation and safe use of the cropping facility could use the GEKA without seeking permission to do so. Other than the prisoners in the immediate vicinity, they were not alerted to the fact that they should not use the machine.

8

At his request, the plaintiff had commenced a structured methadone programme on 16 September 2008. He had used illicit drugs before commencing the programme and had smoked heroin while on transfer to Wheatfield Prison. The trial judge held that, as a matter of probability, he continued to use illicit drugs both before, during and after the accident, although details of the type, quantity and level of illicit drug use were not canvassed with the plaintiff. The trial judge held that it was probable that if a urine test had been carried out on a urine sample taken from the plaintiff on the day of the accident it would have tested positive for some or all of the substances cannabis, benzos, opiates and methadone. The plaintiff had received his prescribed dose of methadone prior to attending the workshop on the day of the accident.

9

The plaintiff was a trainee on the welding course. On the day in question, he attended the workshop. As I have described, the GEKA developed a problem and ITI Nicholson disabled the machine and left the workshop to find an out of order sign to place on the GEKA. This left Officer Maher alone with the trainees in the workshop. He had been instructed to ensure that no one used the machine. Officer Maher left his position beside the GEKA to fetch more steel bars from a storeroom for use by the trainees, thereby leaving the prisoners unsupervised and the GEKA unguarded. While both ITI Nicholson and Officer Maher were out of the workshop, the plaintiff operated the GEKA without the guide guard in place and the four fingers of his left hand were amputated by the unguarded GEKA. The precise circumstances of how this occurred is central to the case.

The pleadings
10

The plaintiff set out his case in his Personal Injury Summons, which was amended on a number of occasions, the final version of which was dated 21 October 2014. He pleaded as follows:-

“On or about the 27th day of November, 2008 whilst the Plaintiff was an inmate in Wheatfield Prison, in the County of the City of Dublin, which said prison was under the control of the First Named Defendant, and whilst the Plaintiff was under the influence of a controlled drug to wit Methadone administered by an agent of the First Named Defendant, the plaintiff was participating in a training programme where he was cutting metal with a guillotine steel cutter, the...

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