A misstep on stairs rarely results in compensation because it is a function of the person using them rather than of the stairs themselves.
Likewise, minor stairway design deficiencies are usually excused if a fall originates in that way. Especially in the absence of prior injuries at the location.
What then of a fall caused by misplaced footing on concrete hospital fire stairs with a minuscule differential in riser height?
That question fell for determination by the Queensland Supreme Court in adjudicating the workplace injury claim of 27-yr-old physiotherapist Amelia Covey, injured on the fire stairs of the Charters Towers Hospital in May 2010.
The elevator that operated between the ground and first floors of the hospital was slow. That and a “walk at work” campaign that encouraged personnel to reach 10,000 steps daily, meant many staff including Covey took the stairs a few times each week instead of the lift.
On the second flight of five that ascended to level two, Covey’s right shoe “just clipped the third tread from the top”. As a result of her misplaced footing, she lost balance and as she grabbed the hand rail her left arm “was yanked backwards”.
Surgery in April 2011 to repair a tear in her left bicep tendon and to decompress her left shoulder, left her with severe pain and a nerve disorder. The front and left side of her neck “felt they were on fire with a burning pain” that also shot down her left arm and brought on severe headaches.
The physio’s subsequent frozen shoulder condition and the chronic pain that in turn led to a major depressive disorder required the intervention of a pain specialist.
The ensuing injury compensation lawsuit finally arrived before Justice David North in the Townsville court five years later.
Four days of testimony was dominated by descriptions of the physical characteristics of the stairway, its usage and argument over the extent of the hospital’s duty to make it safe.
Both safety engineers – Roger Kahler for Covey and Frank Grigg for the hospital – reported a variation in riser dimensions in the stairwell.
They also both recorded that the greatest variation in height of the risers occurred exactly where Covey claimed to have tripped or stumbled.
While engineer Grigg disagreed with Kahler over the application of an Australian Standard to that location, he conceded that consistency in riser heights was at least “recommended practice” because “for decades” it was well-known that even small height variations escalated injury risks to persons ascending or descending stairs.
Against that background Covey argued that the hospital was negligent for failing to take measures such as topping the treads with concrete or capping the noses of each tread to equalise the height variations.
The hospital on the other hand argued there was no evidence that the stairs were unsafe for the purpose for which they were designed, namely for emergency use; and there was no evidence that implementing either of the suggested measures would have avoided the fall.
Justice North acknowledged the force of the hospital’s argument in usual circumstances.
But in the context of the both safety engineers’ testimony “the compelling conclusion is that the stairs constituted a danger because of the trap inherent in the riser height inconsistency,” he reasoned “making it difficult for someone walking up or down to judge the placement of feet”.
The well-known usage of the emergency stairs by staff in lieu of the lift – particularly in the context of the 10,000 exercise awareness campaign – commanded management to have “turned its mind to the safety of the stairway” or have them examined by a competent expert or even “an intelligent layman”.
The significant inconsistency in the height of successive risers in these circumstances was a “hidden trap” and an accident was only a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’.
That there were no prior serious accidents was irrelevant. “The frequency of use in the absence of accidents can speak eloquently for the safety of a stairway but this is not such a case,” he recorded. “Here there was a latent danger”.
Having decided that the hospital was liable Justice North heard from numerous medical specialists who expressed “at best a guarded hope” for any improvement in her condition.
He concluded Covey would continue to suffer a lifetime loss of left arm function and significant debilitating pain that “destroyed her capacity to work as a physiotherapist and into the future”.
He assessed income loss past and future at $1.2 million, out of a total assessment of $1.76 million.