Steelbro held liable for injury to Toll truck driver

Toll pursues trailer manufacturer Steelbro after truck driver loses four fingers using a sidelifter

Steelbro held liable for injury to Toll truck driver
Steelbro held liable for injury to Toll truck driver
By Brad Gardner | June 9, 2011

Trailer manufacturer Steelbro has been ordered to cough up almost $200,000 after a Toll Transport truck driver lost four of his fingers using its sidelifter.

Tasmanian Supreme Court Justice Peter Evans scolded Toll and Steelbro for failing to address a known safety risk before Christopher Roderick Manuel Barnes’ hand was crushed while he was using the sidelifter to move a shipping container from a truck to a rail wagon.

The court was told Barnes was standing atop the empty tray of the flatbed wagon near the stabiliser leg of the sidelifter when the incident occurred.

He slipped and instinctively reached out and grabbed a gap in the housing of the stabiliser, which closes as the leg extends.

"As the leg extended the gap at the top of the housing closed. Barnes’ right fingers were in that gap when it closed. They were crushed," Evans says in his written judgement.

"The gap in the top of the stabiliser leg housing presented a real danger to anyone working in proximity to it, as it closed when the leg was extended."

Evans says the safety risk could have been prevented if a steel plate costing $809 had been attached to cover the gap. Toll made the move after Barnes’ accident, which also prompted Steelbro to implement a design change to its sidelifters.

The incident happened in 2000, and Toll had already reached a settlement totaling $398,907.59. It subsequently launched legal action to hold Steelbro partially responsible.

Evans ordered Steelbro to pay $199,453.80 of the settlement, saying responsibility for Barnes’ injury should be equally apportioned.

"The danger was reasonably foreseeable and not so remote as to justify ignoring it. I am accordingly satisfied that had Steelbro been sued at the time when Barnes’ cause of action arose, it would have been liable to him for the same damage as Toll," Evans says.

"They both had ample opportunity to recognise the danger. Steelbro had this opportunity over a period of about ten years, and Toll had this opportunity over the period of about a year."

Evans found Toll breached its duty of care to Evans because its failure to appreciate the risk meant it did not notify Steelbro or cease using the sidelifter.

Steelbro claimed Toll was liable and also accused Barnes of contributory negligence on the basis he ignored instructions in the operating manual to stay clear of the sidelifter when it was in use.

However, Evans found that Barnes – who had more than 10 years of training using sidelifters prior to the accident – did not deliberately flout warnings, was using the machine according to his training and that the manual did not direct operators to stay clear when extending the stabiliser leg.

"I am satisfied that insofar as Barnes either slipped or was inadvertent, his conduct was not such to amount to failure to take reasonable care for his own safety and he was not contributorily negligent," Evans says.

He blasted Steelbro management as "living in the past" for questioning how the accident could have occurred. Barnes was using a remote control strapped to his waist to manoeuvre the stabiliser when his fingers were crushed.

"Not only were they overlooking the fact that, by reason of the introduction of a remote control, operators could and were extending stabiliser legs from an elevated position, but they were apparently not cognisant of the fact that their Manual included a direction that operators should do so," Evans writes.

Robert McIntyre, who provided pre-delivery, delivery and training services for Steelbro’s sidelifters, told the court he and others had performed similar manoeuvres to Barnes’.

"It was known that operators stood in an elevated position on a tray adjoining the sidelifter when extending the sidelifter leg," Evans says.

"Had anyone properly addressed the risk of the performance of that operation in that position relative to the closing leg housing gap, the danger thus presented would have been patently obvious."

The court heard that Barnes was 40 years old when his right hand was injured and has since struggled with cramps, ongoing pain and considerable swelling.

Barnes now has half an index finger and a thumb on his right hand, which Evans says is his dominant side.

The truck driver returned to work for Toll in 2001 but the pain from his injury restricted his ability to stay behind the wheel. He was moved to forklift and yard duties but cold weather caused further pain to his hand.

The court was told he sought an office job at Toll to get out of the weather, but the transport and logistics giant ignored his request. It fired him in July 2002, at which point Barnes began his own trucking business.

Medical reports referred to during proceedings showed Barnes, who currently works for a transport company, continued to suffer from pain and his business lost work and money.

"His capacity to earn an income has been severely impaired," a 2002 medical report says.

"He has an extremely serious injury to his right hand and as he has always done physical-type work, he is in somewhat dire straits."

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