Prison officer fails in damages claim for injury sustained during riot training exercise

A prison officer who was injured while taking part in a riot training exercise has had an action for damages refused.

A sheriff ruled that the pursuer failed to prove that the accident was caused to any extent by a breach by the defenders of any statutory obligation incumbent on them, or by fault on their part.

Sheriff Douglas Kinloch heard that the pursuer Bernadette Smith was employed by a company called Kalyx Ltd as a prison officer, based at Addiewell Prison.

In September 2010 she attended a one-day “control and restraint” training course, which involved a “simulated prison riot”, run by the Scottish Prison Service at its Fauldhouse training facility in Bathgate, West Lothian.

Livingston Sheriff Court was told that the object of the exercise was to regain control of a mock prison wing occupied by mock prisoners, who were other prisoner officers engaged in a riot.

The pursuer, who was wearing full riot gear, was designated as a “shield holder” and was among those at the front of a group of prison officer trying to access the mock prison wing by getting through a set of metal gates which was barricaded by the rioters.

She held a large riot shield in front of her and advanced towards the gates with the other shield holders followed by more officers designated as “workers”, whose role was to clear debris such as filing cabinets, blocks of wood and wooden crates which had been piled up in order to prevent the officers gaining access to the the wing.

However, as the pursuer and the others moved forward, she was struck by a large block of wood, propelled by another prison officer.

She was hit three times by the 12-feet long plank and was injured when her shield was forced back into her visor, causing her head to jerk back.

The pursuer raised an action for damages £6,460 against the Scottish Ministers, arguing that certain failures by the defenders put them in breach of various regulations, thus rendering them liable in damages, and that the defenders were similarly liable under the common law of negligence.

However, the sheriff assoilzied the defenders after concluding that, in relation to the statutory cases, the pursuer “failed to establish a breach of any of the various regulations founded upon”.

In relation to the common law case, the sheriff held that the various safety measures put in place by the defenders had been “carefully and professionally thought out” and that it was “difficult to see that they could have been substantially improved”.

In a written judgement, Sheriff Kinloch said: “In relation to the Management of Work Regulations, she has not in my view established that there was a failure to carry out any risk assessment, or that the risk assessment which was carried out was not suitable and sufficient.

“The defenders had to make the training as realistic as possible, and the pursuer’s own witnesses accepted that this even made it permissible for the mock rioters to strike prison officers shields with objects.

“However, given the very many steps which the Scottish Prison Service took to make the course safe I am not persuaded that the risk of injury was anything other than a small risk of a slight injury.

“There was no evidence before me, for example, that other people had been injured on these courses.

“The defenders, in my view, did as much as they reasonably could to prevent injury, but it seems to me that it was simply not possible to completely remove all risks of injury.”

The sheriff agreed with the defenders’ expert, who said that it was “impossible sometimes to completely eliminate the risk of injury” when there was “human interaction”.

Sheriff Kinloch added: “The result of all this is that, as was the case in relation to the grounds of liability as based on the various regulations, it is my view that the pursuer has failed to establish a failure by the defenders to take reasonable care for her safety, and her action must fail.

“While the accident seems to have affected her quite badly, and it is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards her for that, it is not in my view an accident which sounds in law in damages.”

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