Royal Mail was negligent in its enforcement of an advance warning system before a postman was allegedly attacked by two dogs at a house in Derry, a High Court judge ruled today.
Mr Justice McCloskey also held that the woman who owned both animals was equally liable for the incident 11 years ago.
Gerald Shiels is seeking damages over injuries he says were sustained as he approached Sheena McCarrick’s home at Glengalliagh Park in June 2000.
He claims to have torn a cruciate ligament in his knee as he stepped back to defend himself from the dogs.
The 45-year-old, who worked as a postman until 2002, contended that Mrs McCarrick was liable because he suffered injuries as a result of her pets behaviour.
His case against his employers at the time was that they failed to discharge their duty to provide appropriate training, instruction, warnings and advice.
He also alleged negligence on the basis that an advance warning system was not properly operated.
The court heard details about a previous alleged attack on another postman by Mrs McCarrick’s two dogs.
He gave evidence of declining to deliver mail to the house on occasions after that because of their presence.
Mr Justice McCloskey held that Mr Shiels did receive training and instructions about dog risks and attacks.
He also accepted that Royal Mail had an advance warning system, involving the display of dog warning cards, at the workplace, and took its responsibilities seriously.
But he identified a failure to instigate the measure in respect of Mrs McCarrick’s home prior to the incident involving Mr Shiels.
The judge attributed the failure to simple human error and a laxity of procedure.
“Heightened alertness is, self-evidently, an important weapon in the armoury of every postman,” he said.
“Strikingly, in describing the incident in his evidence to the court, the plaintiff recounted that he was ‘looking down at’ his bundle of mail when he first heard the dogs barking.
“This precipitated, literally, a knee jerk reaction on his part. The dogs must have been within his line of vision before he actually saw them.”
A warning system which would have put the postman on alert would probably have averted the confrontation, according to the judge.
In his view this “constituted a shortcoming in Royal Mail’s safe system of work procedures, a failing which the hypothetical reasonably prudent employer would not have permitted to occur”.
Mr Justice McCloskey stated: “It follows that Royal Mail was guilty of negligence. “
He also held that Mrs McCarrick’s evidence was “somewhat tainted by her manifest, and humanly understandable, partisanship vis-a-vis the two family dogs... her strong emotional attachment to them and the disdain with which she treated the plaintiff’s intimated claim from the outset”.
Liability had been established against her, the court was told.
“I find that on the occasion in question her dogs were behaving in such a manner so as to cause (the plaintiff) apprehension of being attacked,” he said.
Setting out how there was nothing to choose between the two defendants, the judge proposed to apportion liability equally between them.
A further hearing on the issue of damages is expected to be held at a later stage.