A former firefighter has lost an appeal in his bid to sue the State Government for damages over a severe psychiatric injury sustained while battling a blaze that claimed the lives of 11 people a decade ago.
The Court of Appeal in Brisbane today unanimously dismissed Peter Giles’ appeal and ordered he pay the costs of the Queensland Government to defend the action.
In December last year QLS Proctor reported that former Queensland Fire and Rescue Services (QFRS) officer Peter Giles 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 delivered on 18 December 2020, said Mr Giles was one of numerous QFRS and emergency workers to attend the fire in which 11 people perished at 60 Wagensveldt 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 wellbeing 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.”
On 4 May 2021, Mr Giles appealed Judge Reid’s decisions before Court of Appeal Justices Hugh Fraser, Philip McMurdo and Elizabeth Wilson.
Justice McMurdo, in a 16-page decision delivered today, said: “It is not demonstrated that the trial judge (Reid) erred in finding that there was no breach of the employer’s duty.
“I would add, however, that had the employer done either of the things which it was alleged should have been done, it was not demonstrated that these counter-measures would have prevented the injury.
“If a reasonable person would have taken the precaution to relieve Mr Giles after three or four hours, the evidence did not prove that such a breach of duty was a necessary condition of the occurrence of the injury.
“In other words, it did not prove that but for the failure to take that precaution, (Mr Giles) would not have suffered the PTSD, or even that the PTSD would have been minimised.”
Justices Fraser and Wilson agreed with Justice McMurdo’s order the appeal be dismissed with costs.
Read the decision of District Court Judge Reid.