A Scottish legal news website is reporting on an interesting case of a prison officer who sued the Scottish government for a breach of duty of care when she was injured during riot training, but lost her case.
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…
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.
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”.
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.”
1) Having worked with the Scottish Prison Service College and their Risk Managers, I can attest that they are a serious and professional group who are very aware of safety issues and their responsibilities in training and so it is heartening that they have been supported by the sheriff in this case.
2) At Dynamis we are very conscious that the best learning experiences happen when there is a high degree of “training fidelity” – where the learning environment and context closely matches the environment and context in which the target skills and behaviours are to be performed. Where the likelihood and forseeability of conflict management or physical intervention skills actually needing to be used is high, then it is incumbent upon the organisation to provide the highest-quality and greatest degree of training fidelity possible.
3) 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”. At Dynamis we regularly refer to the “collision of bodies” which, in any context, can create circumstances that are of a ‘freak’ nature, despite the best planning and assessment of the skilled professionals which have set their mind to creating safety, either in training drills or in operational contexts.
4) It is interesting to infer that the provision of suitable and sufficient risk assessments for the training programme were given what appears to be a considerable weight and strength of argument, such that the Sheriff could be comfortable to find that the training managers did “as much as they reasonably could to prevent injury”
While unfortunate for the officer who was hurt, this case shows that both training fidelity and safe practice, through risk-assessment, can co-exist.
Gerard O’Dea is a conflict management, personal safety and physical interventions training consultant. He is the training director for Dynamis, a specialist provider of personal safety and violence management programmes and the European Adviser for ‘Verbal Defense and Influence’, a global programme which addresses the spectrum of human conflict. www.dynamis.training