Drawing the line between inference and speculation: causation

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By Stuart Eustice, Partner and Georgia Sim, Law Graduate

Recently the Victorian Supreme Court, Court of Appeal in Nadia Munday v St Vincent’s Hospital [2021] VSCA 170 considered whether the claimant had adduced evidenced sufficient upon which to draw an inference itself establishing a causal link between the pleaded particular of negligence and the injury.

Nadia Munday (the Applicant), a nurse at St George’s Hospital in Kew (the Hospital), injured her thumb while using a slide board to assist a patient move. The slide board had holes in it, in which the Applicant’s thumb was injured when transferring a patient. The Applicant had received no training in relation to the use of this particular slide board.

At first instance the Applicant brought proceedings in the County Court of Victoria claiming the Hospital was liable in negligence due to this lack of training. The trial judge found that the Hospital had breached its duty of care to the Applicant for such failure to train staff in relation to the slide board. The claim in negligence was however, unsuccessful as the Applicant had failed to evidence a causal link between the lack of training and the injury so sustained. No evidence was lead to show how training would have affected the outcome. The Appellant submitted an inference can be drawn by common sense. The trial judge disagreed  – it was speculation to suggest training would have addressed the position of one’s thumb when using the slide board to transfer a patient.

The same question was considered on appeal.

Decision on Appeal

The Court of Appeal cited with approval the case of Masters Homes Improvement Australia Pty Ltd v North East Solutions [2017] VSCA 88 [101], which requires that “inference must be based on evidence, it must be the product of logical deduction rather than speculation, and the party that seeks to establish the inference must demonstrate that the inference is the more probable conclusion to be drawn from the proven facts”. The Appellate Court also accepted that in some cases, common knowledge or common sense is sufficient for a court to be satisfied as to how an injury could have been avoided.

However, in the Appeal Court’s view the Applicant failed to provide sufficient evidence to persuade it to draw the required inference establishing causation. The majority ultimately held that due to the lack of evidence it was “beyond the realm of common-sense…it was far from self-evident how this board was to be used, or why the board had a hole at each end”. Therefore, the majority held that due to the lack of evidence, it was too speculative to conclude that any training could have prevented her injuries.

The Court also distinguished the slide board from a piece of ‘dangerous machinery’ which would require proper guardianship to ensure the user does not injure themselves (Betts v Whittingslowe (1945) 71 CLR 637).

Key takeaway:

Liability for injury claims are often contested on breach of duty rather than causation. However, as is evidenced in Munday it is an equally relevant consideration. As cited by the Court, causation maybe established by inference and common sense though without sufficient evidence to permit the drawing of such, they become mere speculation.

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