The Commissioner for Education has recently investigated a complaint lodged by the father of a full-time seventeen year old female student at one of Malta’s tertiary education institutions. The student had sustained an injury while carrying out duties in a private establishment during work placement. This work experience formed an integral, compulsory and important part of her course requirements. The father requested the institution to declare the accident to be an injury on duty and to reimburse the expenses for the relative treatment, “including those required in the future”. The institution had replied that while it had an insurance policy covering its employees, there was no such insurance in place, which covered students during their work placement. It was however ready “as a gesture of good will to pay medical bills incurred up to that point, but as a matter of policy could not commit itself to pay for future expenses”. The student’s father disagreed and insisted on future payments as well as re-imbursement for income lost from summer work which his daughter was unable to carry out because of the injury.
In his comments to the Commissioner, the Head of the institution retreated that students were not covered by the insurance policies it held. However, the institution had offered to pay the medical expenses to date. This was an ex gratia offer without admitting liability. The student had since started attending lectures regularly without any aid. The most senior official stressed that the institution could not accept open-ended demands. Eventually the it was presented with a claim made up of €241.42 medical expenses duly supported by official receipts, and for loss of income for the following summer calculated on the basis of pay-slips for work in the previous summer (well over €2,000).
In the course of the investigation, the Commissioner enquired:
- whether the task assigned by the (private employer) was relevant (to the course of studies) and suitable for the seventeen year old female student; and
- why the institution did not cover the students by an appropriate insurance policy during their work placement.
The work placement supervisor appointed by the institution replied that he could not tell whether the task assigned was suitable as he had arrived on the scene when the task was practically completed and the student had suffered her injury, but admitted that the chore in question was not particularly relevant to the student’s training needs. He referred to the excellent cooperation between the private employers and the institution to ensure that the assigned tasks were well matched with the students’ training needs but the supervisor added that he could not be present at all times with all students during the work placements.
The Commissioner criticised the statement from, the institution, which blamed the student for not refusing to carry out the task in the first place – all the more so since the Final Grade obtained during the course depended, amongst others factors, on the assessment on performance during the work placement.
The Commissioner considered that even if the episode was, as considered by the institution, an unfortunate accident, the fact remained that complainant’s injury resulted from the performance of a task during her work practice when she was the institution’s responsibility – an injury which caused a great deal of pain and trauma beside related anxiety also to the parents and the related expenses as well as loss of income. The Commissioner therefore concluded that it was all the more regrettable that the institution did not cover the students with an insurance policy for workplace accidents. He reiterated that in assigning work placements as an integral part of the course, the institution had to assume full responsibility and ensure beforehand that:
- the nature of the assignment was not only relevant to the studies but also suitable according to the age, gender and physical capabilities of the student – it resulted that the task assigned to the student was not particularly relevant to the student’s course;
- safety and security at place of work, including the provision of proper tools and machinery without risk to life and limb; and that
- as much as possible, the task is performed under supervision.
The Commissioner further considered that prior to the accident, the institution did not have an insurance policy in place to cover such eventualities. Such cover was only provided following this accident.
In view of the above considerations, the Commissioner concluded that the institution was responsible for the damage sustained by the student.
The fact that the student suffered the injury as a result of the tasks assigned during the work placement was never disputed and there was an indirect admission that the task, which led to the injury was not particularly relevant to her studies. However, no evidence (e.g. medical certification) was presented as to any permanent disability or claim for future loss of earnings. The Commissioner was however satisfied regarding the claim for loss of earnings already incurred in the summer immediately following the accident. The Commissioner further considered that the institution should have ensured that it had in place an insurance policy to cover such eventuality – something, which it did after the accident.
While accepting that the institution could not accept liability for any future and indeterminate expenses, the Commissioner held e it responsible for the actual damages sustained by complainant, including proven medical expenses and loss of future earnings as a consequence of the injury. He therefore recommended that the institution compensates the student by a sum of €2,545 which covers the complainant’s medical expenses (€241) and loss of earnings (€2,304) for the summer immediately following the injury.
While accepting to pay the sum of €241 for medical expenses the institution reiterated its non-acceptance of liability on its part. It respectfully disagreed with the Commissioner’s recommendation to compensate the complainant for potential loss of earnings. Therefore in line with Section 17 D of the Ombudsman Act, the Commissioner referred the relative documentation to the Hon Minister for Education and Employment, including a copy of the Final Opinion on the complaint, as well as subsequent correspondence from the institution. The Hon Minister, after perusing the documents, informed the the Head of the institution that he considers that the recommendation made in the Final Opinion was “fair and reasonable and [the institution] should proceed to pay this sum”.
In turn, the Commissioner informed the Hon Minister as follows:
“I note that you have supported my recommendation contained in my Final Opinion on his complaint; your decision is greatly appreciated.
I should add that despite the divergence of opinion with [the Head of the institution] on this particular case, my relationship with him and his officials have always been most cordial. They have always been helpful and generous with their assistance for which I am really grateful.”Case Studies