Court orders employee awarded $700,000 for company’s negligence

A MOUNT Isa Bunnings employee was hospitalised the day after she swept uncovered fertiliser at the store.

Some days later, in March 2008, Janelle Elizabeth Cowen woke from a coma in the Townsville Hospital and was diagnosed with pneumococcal meningitis, encephalitis and septicaemia.

On Tuesday Bunnings was ordered to pay $700,000 and legal costs to Ms Cowen, following a Supreme Court of Queensland hearing.

This was on the grounds of negligence for damages relating to Ms Cowen’s illness.

Judge Alan Wilson decided the Rooster Booster fertiliser  she swept without swearing a respirator, mask or personal protective equipment was the most likely cause.

Bunnings legal defence suggested Ms Cowen’s illness was coincidental with the timing of the work she did.

Ms Cowen could have instead breathed in sulphur dioxide – known to cause invasive pneumococcal disease.

There was a spike in atmospheric sulphur dioxide emissions in Mount Isa the same day Ms Cowen cleaned the fertiliser, the defence noted.

Smoking or a cold which Ms Cowen could have had before sweeping the fertiliser might also have caused the illness.

Judge Wilson said a pre-existing condition was “exploded” by the evidence.

“And all the other [reasons] involve such a high degree of coincidence, and instead awfully bad luck, that they are considerably less plausible, to a degree which means that the attribution of causation to them would, with respect to the doctors, defy common sense,” Judge Wilson said.

“The plaintiff [Ms Cowen], for these reasons, must succeed in the case and have judgement against the defendant.”

Medical witnesses said Ms Cowen’s illness was caused by streptococcus pneumoniae, which likely colonised her upper respiratory tract.

But this colonisation is common and occurs in up to 40 per cent of the adult population at one time.

In a rare and more serious occurrence, the infection spread into her blood stream, brain and meninges, the evidence said.