Judge rejects police officer’s damages claim following training exercise injury

A police constable who was injured while playing the role of an attacker during an officer safety training course has had a claim for damages refused by a judge in the Court of Session.

Debbie Stevenson was “strangling” a colleague on the floor of a gym when she was thrown off during an exercise, causing a significant injury to her right shoulder.

She raised an action for damages against Sir Stephen House, Chief Constable of Police Scotland, alleging that the defender was in breach of a common law duty of care owed to her by the instructors on the course.

The defender accepted that in the event of the instructors being found in breach of their common law duty of care to the pursuer, and the pursuer establishing that she sustained injury as a result, he was liable to make reparation to the pursuer.

The parties agreed quantum in the sum of £9000, but liability and causation were disputed.

Lord Boyd of Duncansby (pictured) heard that the pursuer attended a course in officer safety training at Rutherglen police station in February 2012.

The annual refresher course, for training officers in safety techniques learned during their initial training at the police college at Tulliallan, included first aid, personal defence techniques, crowd control and the use of baton and CS gas.

Among the techniques taught was one which involved a “simulated attack” by an assailant on an officer on the ground, with the officer lying on their back while being straddled by an attacker in a “full mount” position, as the attacker holds the officer’s throat in a “choke hold”.

The ground defence strangle technique was one taught to officers to enable them to escape the hold, but the pursuer was injured while she played the role of the attacker as she and another female officer practised the exercise.

The pursuer alleged that the instructors did not follow the advice in the training manual and instruct those playing the part of officers to hook the attacker’s wrist, and therefore the officer had no control over where and how the attacker was displaced.

The pursuer claimed that her partner in the exercise “thrust up her hips at speed” and twisted her body to the left, and as a result she fell off onto her right shoulder.

However, the judge ruled in favour of the defender and granted decree of absolvitor after ruling that he “simply did not believe” the pursuer.

In a written opinion, Lord Boyd of Duncansby said: “I have little difficulty in concluding from the evidence before me that the ground defence strangle technique was properly demonstrated and proper verbal instructions were given. For the avoidance of doubt I find that this included the requirement that the officer hook the wrist of the attacker while displacing them in that direction.

“Even if I had accepted that the instructing officers had omitted the hook from the technique I would have had some difficulty with causation.”

The judge accepted evidence that there was “a risk” that the attacking officer might land on their shoulder even if the hook had been used, but there was a discussion between the officers as to which way the pursuer would be displaced and she could have “readied herself for the fall”.

He also noted that the exercise “should not have been new” to the pursuer, as it was a technique that she was supposed to have learned during her initial training at Tulliallan.

Lord Boyd added: “She had done it once before in a refresher course. The purpose of the refresher course is to refresh skills that should already have been learnt.

“I do not require to make a finding on causation but against that background it seems to me that the pursuer would struggle to show that the lack of the hook had a material contribution to the accident.”

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