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Firefighter loses battle to sue for mental trauma caused during an inferno killing 11 people

A former firefighter has lost his bid to sue the Queensland Government for damages over a severe psychiatric injury sustained while battling a blaze that claimed the lives of 11 people–including eight children–almost a decade ago.

Veteran and now former Queensland Fire and Rescue Services (QFRS) officer Peter Giles on Friday (18 December) failed in his attempt to sue the State of Queensland for the significant psychiatric disorder he developed after attending a tragic and horrific house fire at Slacks Creek, south of Brisbane, on 24 August 2011.

Brisbane District Court Judge David Reid, in a 50-page decision, said Mr Giles was one of numerous QFRS and emergency workers to attend the fire in which 11 people perished at 60 Wagensveld St, Slacks Creek.

“(Mr Giles) was a firefighter in the employ of the then QFRS and assisted in fighting that blaze,” Judge Reid said.

“Eleven people of Samoan origin, including eight children, lost their lives … (and) following his attendance at the scene and because of that attendance… (Mr Giles) has developed a significant psychiatric disorder, said to be PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).”

Mr Giles sued the State of Queensland pursuant to the provisions of the Crown Proceedings Act for damages for negligence.

After a seven-day hearing between 26 October and 4 November, Judge Reid last week ruled: “I have concluded (Mr Giles) action fails.”

Among Judge Reid’s reasons was that there was insufficient evidence to conclude QFRS had been negligent in its management of Mr Giles’s mental health and wellbeing on and after the night of the fire.

He also found there were other pre-existing health issues – stemming from the long-term consequences of an injury sustained in a motor vehicle accident in 1974 and a fall in early 2013 – that impacted considerably on his physical capacity to have continued working as a firefighter. 

During the hearing the court was told Mr Giles joined the QFRS in June 1986, was 56 years old at the time of the fatal fire and was retired medically unfit in November 2013.

But for his injuries, Mr Giles would have been required to retire as a firefighter when he turned 65 late last year.

Despite ruling in favour of the State of Queensland, Judge Reid did acknowledge the extraordinary and long-lasting impact the tragic and confronting incidents had on the mental health and well-being of emergency workers.

“It is understandable that (Mr Giles’s) psychiatric condition may be adversely affected by … (the) outcome (of these proceedings),” Judge Reid said.

“It is important (Mr Giles) understands that I do not doubt he has developed a significant psychiatric injury following his exposure to the fire and that he understands that I do not doubt that he performed his role as pump operator on the night of the fire well.

“The role of a firefighter can be a demanding one and one that can place a significant emotional burden on those that perform that role to ensure, so far is can be done, that others in the community are safe.

“Unfortunately that emotional burden can become overwhelming, without fault of the individual firefighter or of his employer.

“This is such a case.”

Read the full decision.

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