Coles has been ordered to pay a deli manager $830,000 after she threw her back out lifting a box of chickens in an cramped cool room.
Sonja Filiposka, 51, suffers excruciating pain in her back and left leg almost six years after the injury at the Brighton-le-Sands store in Sydney’s south.
NSW District Court heard the mother-of-three had surgery and therapy to improve her condition, but was now unable to work in any capacity.
The supermarket argued she caused her injury through her own negligence, but Judge Leonard Levy rejected this and blamed Coles.
Ms Filiposka was moving boxes of chicken carcasses by herself about 6am on New Year’s Eve 2014 to ready them for cooking.
Sonja Filiposka, 51, suffers excruciating pain in her back and left leg almost six years after the injury at the Brighton-le-Sands store (pictured) in Sydney’s south
Two of the trays weighing 10kg to 14.4kg were on the bottom of a set of shelves in the overcrowded freezer behind the deli.
Because there was so little room to manouver, Ms Filiposka was forced to lift the tray from almost floor level, then twist her body to put them on a trolley.
She moved the first box without issue, but the second was farther back on the shelf, requiring her to crouch lower and lean forward to pull it out and lift it.
As Ms Filiposka twisted her body to put the second tray on the trolley, she felt a sharp pain in her back.
‘She felt as if she had been struck there, and she then fell to the floor, having experienced what seemed to have been a reduced level of consciousness, due to pain,’ Judge Levy wrote in his judgement.
The Macedonian immigrant was rushed to St George’s Hospital and was later diagnosed with a lumbar disc lesion.
The disc was also displaced by the injury enough to cause pain in her sciatic nerve, which runs from the spine down the leg.
In February 2016, after a series of failed treatments, doctors assessed that her condition was ‘going downhill rapidly’ and she needed surgery.
Ms Filiposka was moving boxes of chicken carcasses by herself about 6am on New Year’s Eve 2014 to ready them for cooking when she injured her back
In early 2018 she had a lumbar spinal fusion surgery but though it brought some relief her pain was still too much to work.
Several doctors assessed her working capacity and initially found she could do sedentary work for a few hours a day.
However, she later developed more complications and was earlier this year assessed as having no ability to work at all.
Judge Levy wrote she had ‘constant backache with intermittent sharp stabbing pains with some burning, and pins and needles sensations down her left leg and her ankle’.
Coles argued Ms Filiposka ‘unnecessarily exposed herself to a risk of injury’ and failed to take ‘adequate care for her own safety’.
Judge Levy dismissed this after review of Coles’ safety training, which was merely a video telling her to use her knees but only showing lifts from the waist.
He found she was ‘poorly trained and not assisted in manual handling techniques’ and given ‘limited’ safety training.
The supermarket also argued she, as the deli manager, had control of the roster and could have scheduled another worker to help her with the lifting.
However, she gave evidence that the deli was chronically understaffed because of cost cutting implemented by senior managers.
Coles argued Ms Filiposka ‘unnecessarily exposed herself to a risk of injury’ and failed to take ‘adequate care for her own safety’, but the judge ruled against this
Ms Filiposka’s performance review in June 2014 berated her for being an average of $201 a week over budget for staff.
‘Many times [her boss] called me in the office and he could say “this is not your budget. Your deli doesn’t make that much money. You cut this team member”,’ she told the court.
Judge Levy ruled Ms Filiposka was lifting alone that morning because the deli was understaffed and she was doing her best to meet the budget.
‘She was not able to call upon casual assistance for occasional manual handling tasks,’ he wrote.
‘She did her best to comply with the defendant’s requirements of her under difficult circumstances that evolved due to budgetary restraints imposed by managerial staff.’
Judge Levy ruled Coles had a duty of care to its employees and failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent the risk of serious injury.
He awarded Ms Filiposka $259,200 for the 288 weeks of work she missed and $446,273 for 16 years of lost future earnings.
With superannuation, this came to $828,554 plus her legal costs.