A general operative at a powdered milk production plant has been awarded more than €268,000 by the High Court over an accident in which he partially fell into a hole at the plant.
The accident happened when married father-of-two Joseph Coughlan was assisting in manoeuvring a large sheet of metal near a 20-foot deep hole in the Kerry Ingredients plant in Charleville, Co Cork on July 23rd, 2017 where he worked for 22 years.
The court heard he was fortunate not to have fallen into the hole but, when he slipped, he struck his back against the edge of the opening and was ultimately left with chronic back pain.
He had worked in the milk drying facility of the plant which produces powder for baby milk formula.
The 58-year-old sued Kerry Ingredients (Ireland) Ltd which accepted liability. The case was before Mr Justice Anthony Barr for assessment of damages.
Mr Coughlan's case was that he developed chronic pain in his back, which rendered him unfit for work, as a result of the accident. He claimed to be significantly disabled in all aspects of his life, had undergone significant treatment for pain, as well as physiotherapy, and is on a cocktail of strong pain relieving medication.
Kerry Ingredients argued their medical evidence showed he suffered a minor soft tissue strain to his back which should have recovered within 12-18 months at most.
It was argued his ongoing complaints of pain were referable to the pre-existing degenerative changes in his back and that he had allowed himself to become physically deconditioned.
It was the view of the defendant's medical experts that he had "assumed an invalid role, which had led to his withdrawal from activity, which in turn had led to his becoming physically deconditioned, leading to further exacerbation of his pain", Mr Justice Barr said in his judgment finding in favour of Mr Coughlan.
'Strong work ethic'
The core issue for resolution by the court was whether his current complaints of pain, and resultant disability, were referable to the accident, the judge said.
The court did not accept the evidence of the defence witnesses that the accident should be deemed a minor one just because no severe acute injury was documented at the time of the accident.
To say that the accident itself was minor was not accurate for a number of reasons including that the court had seen CCTV evidence of the fall and that immediately after he had to lie down on the ground for a period, the judge said.
The fact that he worked another hour to the end of his shift that day, and returned and did the night shift, was not indicative of a minor injury but that he did not want to let his co-workers or employer down on the day, he said.
It was, the judge said, "indicative of a man who had a strong work ethic".
He was satisfied Mr Coughlan's pre-existing degenerative changes in his lower back were asymptomatic prior to the accident, and he did not suffer from back pain before the accident.
The court preferred the evidence of Mr Coughlan's medical experts that his injury was superimposed on a significantly degenerative back, which has given rise to persistent symptoms.
"That their chronicity may be due, to some extent, to psychological factors, is not relevant, as long as the court is satisfied that the plaintiff is not deliberately malingering, or trying to exaggerate his symptoms and disability", he said.
The court was satisfied this was not the case, he said.
The judge said on the balance of probabilities he will be fit to return to light work after an appropriate rehabilitation regime, awarding him €268,589.