Greece: Supreme Court rules on liability of employees in occupational accidents

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Two controversial decisions by the Greek Supreme Court attributed liability to employees for workplace accidents and damage to workplace property, and have created case law that directly contradicts current labour law.  

Controversial rulings create case law

The two decisions (729/2015 and 1253/2014) by the Supreme Court award compensation to employers for property damage caused in the course of work. The decisions, also attributed to the employees, involved a measure of liability for the accidents, one of which was fatal. Both decisions now constitute case law and may be used in favour of employers seeking damages.

Compensation for damage to lost lorry and cargo

Decision 729/2015 of the Supreme Court concerns an accident that occurred in Italy in 2011, when the driver of a refrigerated dairy truck travelling on the motorway between Bologna and Ancona lost control of his vehicle after his front tyre deflated, causing it to crash into the safety barrier. The driver managed to escape the burning vehicle, which was badly damaged. The cargo, belonging to a Greek company, was destroyed. The decision of the Supreme Court states:

The driver of the vehicle is culpable for the accident and the consequences thereof, because despite being experienced and able, as a professional truck driver, he has demonstrated negligence in performing the manoeuvre to the left and failed to maintain the course of the vehicle he was driving, in order to keep it moving in the left lane, lost control thereof and was not capable of regaining it, with the following consequences …

The decision also set the percentage of the driver's liability for the accident at 99%, enabling the employer to claim full compensatory damages from his employee. However, one member of the court disagreed with the judgment, arguing:

The employer remunerates the work and not the undertaking of risk. The salary received by the employee does not compensate for the risk of damages faced by him during the exercise of his duties, in conditions or circumstances of pressure exclusively created and influenced by the employer. A momentary relaxation of attention may be inevitable even for the most diligent and conscientious worker, with completely disproportionate consequences.

Liability of tanker truck driver for his own death

The second case initially attributed 40% liability to a 41-year-old tanker driver who was killed when his vehicle veered off course and plunged from a cliff whilst making a scheduled delivery of milk from Karditsa to Attica.

The parents and the siblings of the driver sued the company in the civil courts claiming damages for pain and suffering, arguing that his death was entirely the fault of the employer. They argued in court that the employer had made him perform continuous trips beyond the statutory working hours of eight hours per day, and without rest. His relatives claimed that he worked day and night without protest because he feared losing his job.

However, the company’s lawyers said that responsibility also lay with the driver because he was not wearing a seat belt which might have saved his life. The Appeal Court partially acknowledged the family’s argument and said that the employing company was 60% liable for the pain and suffering experienced by the driver’s relatives and ruled that the company should compensate his family up to that amount.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court's decision (1253/2014) overturned the Appeal Court’s ruling, saying that the driver had worked only 3.5 hours in excess of the statutory requirement, and only on the day of the accident. The court said this could ‘not imply… in the common experience such an outcome’, particularly since the driver had also had four days off work before his death. The Supreme Court deferred the case for a new judgement by the Appeals Court and the driver’s relatives lost all legal basis for compensatory damages.

Conclusion

Prominent legal experts have vehemently criticised these decisions, describing them as deeply anti-worker, anti-social and contrary to a sense of justice. One critic is Aris Kazakos, Professor of Labour Law at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He has said:

The recent decisions of the Supreme Court are the antithesis of gained knowledge regarding the limitation of liability of the worker for damages caused during his work in “accident-prone professions” and not only them. There are professions which, by their very nature, are associated with an increased risk of damages. Such professions include vehicle drivers, cashiers, warehouse workers and accountants. In these cases, the limitation of the worker's liability is imposed by the teleological contraction of Article 652, Par. 1 of the Civil Code (that determines the liability of the worker to damages caused by intention or negligence, without distinction), combined with articles 288, 300 and 656 of the Civil Code (attribution of risk of operations to the employer). The two Supreme Court decisions 729/2015 and 1253/2014 contradict these articles.

With the first one, the Supreme Court, for the case of property damages caused by a truck driver (destruction of merchandise and the greater part of the vehicle), rejects the objection for contributory negligence of the employer based on articles 300, 652 and 656 of the Civil Code and the (proven) claim that the accident was caused by the deflation of the left front tyre.

With the second decision, the Supreme Court does not recognise the liability of the employer for compensatory damages for pain and suffering of the relatives of the deceased tanker truck driver whom the employer obliged to perform trips, in excess of the daily eight hours (on the day of the accident the employee had already exceeded the statutory working hours by approximately 3.5 hours).

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