Delictual liability in the workplace.

Feb 16, 2023 | News

In the recent judgment of Hobongwana v Benteler South Africa (Pty) Ltd [2023] ZAECQBHC  (6 February 2023), the court found that Benteler was liable for the damages suffered by an independent contractor for the injuries he sustained whilst executing an inherently dangerous task (without proper training and supervision) on instruction of employees of Benteler.

At the time of the incident, the claimant was under the employ of Ulrica and Associates. Ulrica provided labour brokering services to various companies in the automotive industry which included Benteler. The claimant was assigned at Benteler’s plant six months prior to the incident. The claimant contended that he was instructed by one of the employees of Benteler, to proceed to the SSB line (which is a rear axle assembly line) as there was an urgent deadline from a client, compounded by the fact that there was a shortage of workers on the SSB line. Very importantly, the claimant communicated to the said employee that he did not know how to operate the SSB line as he had never worked on it.

The claimant injured his back when he attempted to work on the SSB line where he endeavoured to resolve a jam in one of the machines by removing a part whilst under strenuous time constraints and without the requisite knowledge to operate same. In attempting to resolve the jam swiftly and unknowingly, he applied pressure to the part, which became loose and landed on his chest which caused his back to go into a spasm. Benteler admitted that it owed a legal duty to the claimant but denied that its employees were negligent in the circumstances.

Before reaching its decision, the court remarked that the machinery and equipment in Benteler’s plant carried inherent risks of harm and the admitted legal duty obliged Benteler to ensure that no persons are instructed or permitted to operate machinery or equipment without, as a point of departure, having received the required training and appropriate instruction on how to use it. There were conflicting versions on what transpired on the day of the incident and how the claimant was injured. On balance, the court found that the version of the claimant was probable and resultantly, the claimant was provided with insufficient training and supervision to operate the machinery. As a result, Benteler failed to ensure that the claimant operated the machine and equipment in an unhazardous manner, as well to preserve and protect his bodily integrity and physical well-being. The court also found that the harm was foreseeable and evidently, Benteler failed to prevent the harm in circumstances it should have done so.

This judgement serves yet again as a cautionary tale that failure by an employer to take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable harm to its employees or contractors in the workplace, can result in liability in appropriate circumstances.

Article by Kagiso Tshandu, Associate, Fairbridges Wertheim Becker