A man who was injured when he reacted to the sounding of a defective alarm in the office has been awarded more than $1.9m in damages, with the court finding the employer breached its duty of care by leaving a defective alarm in an office environment where it could foreseeably be activated without warning.
Michael Hooker was employed by Allied Pumps Pty Ltd as a computer draftsman. At approximately 2:00 pm on 12 March 2012, he was seated at his desk in an open-plan office known as the Operations Room. Another employee, Andrew Edwards, switched on a personal gas detector behind Mr Hooker. The alarm was triggered and startled Mr Hooker. He reactively turned sharply to his left to identify the source of the noise, but his knees hit the side of his desk. He felt pain to his neck, left shoulder and right shoulder.
Mr Hooker was initially diagnosed with soft tissue injuries. His symptoms did not improve and he underwent an MRI, which disclosed degenerative cervical pathology of the cervical spine. He underwent an anterior decompression and artificial disc implant (a 4/5 discectomy and arthroplasty).
Mr Hooker commenced proceedings in the District Court of Western Australia against Allied Pumps, in negligence and claimed damages. He alleged that Allied Pump’s management knew or ought to have known that the gas detector was faulty and negligently permitted it to be left in the Operations Room where it could be accessed, instead of ensuring that it was decommissioned and/or safely secured elsewhere. Alternatively, he argued that Allied Pumps is vicariously liable for Mr Edwards’ negligence that he switched the gas detector on and set off the alarm when he knew or ought to have known that it was unsafe to do so. He claimed that he is totally and permanently disabled by his injuries, unfit for any form of employment and that his quality of life has been severely damaged.
Allied Pumps denied liability. It argued that Mr Hooker’s claim was overstated and that he exhibited abnormal illness behaviour.
His Honour McCann DCJ found that Allied Pumps knew of the faulty alarm prior to the incident. Further, the operations room was not a place in which anyone would expect the alarm to be activated. His Honour found that Allied Pumps breached its duty of care to Mr Hooker and is liable for the injuries caused; someone in a position of responsibility left a defective alarm in an office environment where it could foreseeably be activated without warning to others and physically startle them enough to provoke some form of musculoskeletal injury. 
Accordingly, McCann DCJ upheld Mr Hooker’s claim and awarded damages in the total sum of $1,976,364, including $135,000 for general damages: Hooker v Allied Pumps Pty Ltd
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This article first appeared in the CCH Australian Tort, Personal Injury, Health and Medical Law Tracker and is reproduced in full with permission from CCH, a division of Wolters Kluwer Australia: www.wolterskluwer.cch.com.au
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