Damages sustained at work – who is liable?

What is an accident at work?

The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, 1993 (“COIDA“) defines an accident as “an accident arising out of and in the course of an employee’s employment and resulting in a personal injury, illness or the death of the employee”.

COIDA provides that if an employee has an accident resulting in disablement or death, he or his dependants are entitled to the benefits provided for in the act.

Who is liable for damages for an employee’s injuries during a protest action over labour issues?

Members of a trade union, National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union accessed the offices where Ms Catherine Churchill worked as an employee of the Premier of Mpumalanga. During the demonstrations, she claimed that the protesters assaulted her, and she suffered physical injuries (bruises, scratches, and a swollen foot). As a result of being shocked and humiliated, she also suffered a psychiatric injury that left her with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Arising from the incident, Ms Churchill sued the Premier of Mpumalanga for past and future medical treatment, general damages, past and future loss of income. She alleged that the Premier’s and the Director-General’s negligence caused her injuries.

The Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa (“SCA“) heard the matter in Churchill v Premier, Mpumalanga.

The Premier and the DG raised a special plea contending that Ms Churchill’s claim constituted an occupational injury, entitling her to compensation in terms of COIDA. In other words, she had a lawsuit against the Compensation Fund established under COIDA and not against the Premier and the DG.

The court had to decide if the Premier and DG were protected from liability, considered the following key issues:

“Did this incident arise out of Ms Churchill’s employment so that her injuries, both physical and psychiatric, were sustained in an accident for the purposes of COIDA? It was accepted that because it happened at her place of employment and while she was going about her duties, it arose in the course of her employment. Did it arise out of her employment? In other words, was it sufficiently closely connected to her employment to have arisen from it? The fact that it occurred in her workplace when she was going about her duties is undoubtedly a factor that connected it to her employment. In that sense, her employment brought her within the zone of risk, but that is merely where the enquiry commences. Was the risk also incidental to her employment?”

The SCA found that the purpose of COIDA is to compensate for occupational injuries and disease directly sustained when at work. It would not apply to accidents tenuously and tangentially connected to the employee’s duties.

The SCA found that the accident did not arise out of Ms Churchill’s employment. The SCA ultimately concluded that the only connection between the incident and Ms Churchill’s occupation was that she was at work at the time. The incident did not relate to her duties. She was not assaulted because of the position she held, or because of anything she had done in carrying out her duties, or for any reason related to the protest action that took place that day.

Therefore, her injuries did not arise out of her employment, section 35(1) of COIDA did not apply, and the Premier was accordingly liable to compensate her for damages. 

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