Judgments can be difficult to understand sometimes. In the last two weeks alone there has been an avalanche of awards made for very minor injuries which seem very strange.
The lowlights include the awards for slipping on gravy and for banging a knee while sitting down to a dining table. They have both have caused much debate and ire in this office as they no doubt have elsewhere.
This post will not focus on those types of judgments. I’ve written about those types very recently. Importantly, I don’t wish to draw any correlation between the comparatively frivolous circumstances in those cases and the very real and tragic circumstances in this reported case. The only unavoidable correlation between those judgments and this one is simply that people may find the basis of each difficult to understand.
However, like most things that can appear opaque at the outset, they can become clearer on closer inspection. (As long as they are not covered in either gravy or a tablecloth I suppose).
In this case a man died tragically while working. It was the accepted evidence that the fatal accident occurred while the man was engaged in an activity in a manner that did not conform with the required working procedures. No real fault can lie with the man for that. Everyone cuts corners. And many people cut corners for the well-intentioned purpose of being more efficient.
But one element of Judge Murphy’s decision is highly pertinent and informs the underlying principle in much of our protective legislation, not just health and safety legislation. He said that the purpose of health and safety legislation "is sometimes to protect people from themselves."
That is a statement worth examining a little further.
Some people might argue that Aer Lingus or any employer should not be found negligent if a person injures themselves whilst acting in breach of procedures specifically designed to prevent injury.
But the bottom line and the essence of Judge Murphy's decision here is that people are people and people will do what people do. And if you are employing people you have to legislate for that. There is no point in just having procedures without ensuring that those procedures are followed. Because people are people and people will do what people do. There’s nowt queer as folk after all.
Health and safety legislation is no different to other types of legislation designed to protect people from themselves. People are inherently flawed. They make stupid emotive decisions that are entirely illogical. That’s not just some people. That’s everyone and more often than we care to admit.
People will believe anything. Particularly desperate or vulnerable people. That's why companies are not allowed to make wild or exaggerated claims about the benefits of their products without falling foul of advertising regulations. A raft of financial legislation has been enacted since the global financial crisis, including various Codes of Conduct, to try to stop people from making improvident investments. We have speed limits and a ban on drink driving because people drive too quickly and drunk killing and maiming themselves and others.
And so before you puff out your cheeks and say "the law is an ass" remember that in many cases the law is not there to protect you from others; it’s there to protect you from yourself. You see each of us is in reality an ass and we need to be protected from ourselves.
Judge Nolan said that the purpose of health and safety legislation was sometimes to protect people from themselves and that if people were let take a shortcut they would take it.