The High Court of Australia recently overturned a decision of the NSW Court of Appeal where there was limited objective evidence of how the actual incident occurred. The High Court has restored the primary judge's award of damages to the appellant.

Corey Travis Fuller-Lyons By His Tutor Nita Lyons v State of New South Wales [2015] HCA 31

Background

On 29 January 2001, the appellant Corey Fuller-Lyons (Fuller-Lyons), at the age of eight, fell from a moving train and suffered severe injuries. Fuller-Lyons got trapped between doors of the carriage of a train two minutes after it had left Morisset Station. Notably, it was a duty of the guard to check that no-one was trapped between the doors prior to giving railway staff the signal to lock the doors and depart the train station. The appellant had no recollection of how he fell from the train and there were no witnesses who saw the fall.

The appellant successfully brought proceedings in the Supreme Court of NSW and the State of NSW (the State) was found to have breached its duty of care. The State appealed the decision and the Court of Appeal, unanimously overturned the decision at first instance. The appellant then appealed to the High Court of Australia. The High Court allowed the appeal and restored the primary judge's decision.

NSW Supreme Court Decision

The appellant was successful at first instance in establishing that the State negligently breached its duty of care. The judge was required to make several findings as to how the appellant got trapped between the doors. The primary judge found that it was most likely that the appellant became trapped between the doors before the train left Morisset Station and fell when trying to open one of the doors. As part of his body was protruding from the train doors when the train left the station, a railway employee should have been observed the appellant's body protruding from the train doors and signalled to the guard prior to the train departing the station. This failure was held to be negligent and the appellant was awarded damages in the sum of $1,536,954.55.

NSW Court of Appeal Decision

On appeal, alternative hypotheses as to how the appellant got trapped between the doors, which did not entail negligence on the part of the railway employees, were identified. The Court of Appeal held that having such alternative hypothesis did not allow the primary judge to come to a definitive conclusion of what occurred. Specifically, the Court of Appeal found that it was possible the appellant used an object or part of his body to hold the doors open when the train was departing Morisset Station which then allowed him to pass through the doors. The Court of Appeal held that it was incorrect for the primary judge to exclude a possible and potential scenario.

High Court of Australia Decision

The High Court determined that the appellant's claim was dependent on the proof of three inferences of fact: firstly, the appellant was trapped between the doors as the train left the station; secondly, a part of his body was protruding from the car; and thirdly that these protruding body parts were able to be seen by a railway employee.

The High Court stated that "[the appellant's] case fails if any of these inferences is not a definite conclusion of which the trier of fact is affirmatively satisfied, as distinct from merely a possible explanation of the known facts." It was accepted by the primary judge and the Court of Appeal that the appellant was between the doors immediately before the fall. The High Court stated that:

"If the primary judge's conclusion, that the reasonable and probably explanation for this state of affairs is that [the appellant] was trapped between the doors as they close at Morisset Station, is a correct finding, it remains correct notwithstanding that other possible explanations for the known facts cannot be excluded."

The High Court further stated that:

"In light of the Court of Appeal's acceptance that [the appellant] was in that position before his fall, the further finding that [the appellant] came to be in this position as the result of the doors closing on him at Morisset Station is correctly characterised as the most likely inference "by a large measure".

The High Court therefore held that the Court of Appeal erred in overturning the primary judge's decision because the decision of the primary judge was the most likely inference notwithstanding that there were other possible hypotheses that could not be excluded.

Implications

This case is significant where the available evidence as to the how an injury occurred is limited and the Court is required to make findings in this regard. This High Court decision demonstrates that where a possible explanation is the most probable explanation "by a large measure", the Court can accept this version of events over other possible but not likely explanations. This makes the evidentiary burden on the plaintiff's less stringent and therefore easier to prove negligence against a defendant.

In light of this decision and the subsequent reduced burden on plaintiff's, it is important to always ensure objective evidence is obtained wherever possible to prove as the most likely version of events.

See link to the High Court of Australia judgement summary here and the full decision of the High Court of Australia here.