Woolworths has avoided paying more than $140,000 in damages after surveillance footage of a customer who slipped on a grape in February 2014 revealed his claims about an injury caused by the accident were exaggerated and “inconsistent”.
Instead, the retail giant has been ordered to pay damages of $11,111 to customer Raymond Polwarth, reports news.com.au.
The 51-year-old customer used a prosthetic limb due to a previous accident when he was younger. The court heard that when he slipped on the grape in the Woolworths Hervey Bay store, the limb moved out from under him causing him to fall on his leg stump and sustain an injury.
The customer then claimed as a result of the accident, he was unable to perform his usual activities, including walking on the beach “three to four times a week”, mowing the lawn, playing golf, or fish for an extended period of time.
The customer claimed the accident left him unable to function independently and affected his mobility and level of function for a year after the accident. The customer sought a total of $40,390 in damages for past gratuitous care and $103,512 for future gratuitous care.
While Woolworths did not dispute its liability in the case, it took issue with the customer’s claim that the incident caused significant permanent incapacity.
Surveillance footage captured by a private investigator on behalf of Woolworths in 2016 presented to the court also revealed the claims made by the customer around his mobility and level of functioning were “inconsistent”.
In the judgment, Judge David G Searles said the footage “speaks for itself”, despite the customer criticising the footage and claiming it did not accurately depict the customer’s experience.
“The level of functioning of the plaintiff is self-evident and reflects that his ability to function has not been significantly curtailed,” Judge Searles said.
“The footage shows, on numerous occasions, at different locations, the extent to which the plaintiff is able to function and mobilise notwithstanding any incapacity he now asserts to be causally related to the injuries he suffered as a result of the incident.”
As a result, Woolworths was ordered to pay $4080 in general damages,$1128 for Medicare costs,$4687 for surgery on the customer’s knee, and $520 for lawn mowing, among other expenses.
Although the use of a private investigator may seem extreme, commercial lawyer at Ampersand Legal Narissa Corrigan told SmartCompany it is “not uncommon”.
“What businesses have done in the past when there’s been a question of the seriousness of customer’s claims is send a private investigator around to the claimant’s home or place of work to survey them,” she says.
“It’s not uncommon, though it can be a risky manoeuvre.”
Less covert approaches advised
This is an extreme measure, however, and for businesses looking to protect themselves from customer claims, Corrigan recommends some less covert approaches.
“It can be a case of making sure whoever’s working in the store keeps it clean and free from hazards, especially in fresh food businesses where there’s a higher risk of slippery things on the floor. Making sure staff are educated can minimise the risk around any accidents occurring,” she says.
“In-store cameras can definitely help show the circumstances leading up to the accident, but they wont show how serious the injuries are, which might not be known until a later time.
“Businesses have to take care to make sure their shop is safe for customers, because they have absolute liability if a customer has an accident.”
If it gets to the point in a legal where customers are seeking damages, Corrigan says although cases are determined on a “case by case” basis, businesses should be quick to act.
“Generally it’s best for a business to evaluate the strength of the medical evidence presented to them and defend it as best as possible in the circumstances,” she says.
“If this happens in your store, it would be best to get some legal advice as soon as possible.”
Woolworths was contacted by SmartCompany but did not respond prior to publication. SmartCompany was unable to contact Raymond Polwarth prior to publication.