From Irish Examiner; How often have we heard and read of this type of scenario when dealing with our members injured on duty.When will the scandal of having to wait 10 to 15 years for your claim to be settled by the State.
Former inter-county hurler and garda, Aidan Flanagan, was awarded €1.16m for a work-related injury last week, but the case raises many questions about how garda management dealt with an injured member, writes Michael Clifford
ON the road from Cork to Dublin, Garda Aidan Flanagan stopped in Mitchelstown, where he met his father, who had travelled from his home, outside Cashel, in Co Tipperary.
Garda Flanagan needed the price of the petrol to get him to Dublin. He was booking himself into St John of God’s psychiatric hospital. In the weeks preceding this lowest point, in August, 2015, Aidan Flanagan had been faced with an unenviable dilemma.
The father-of-three had to pay the costs of his children returning to school the following month. He also had to pay for the painkilling drugs to relieve excruciating pain. He had no money. His salary had been stopped by An Garda Síochána. The bank was threatening to repossess the family home, because of his failure to keep up repayments.
He had, a few months previously, been put through the trauma of a disciplinary process. His alleged ill-discipline, of which he was ultimately cleared, was, bizarrely, to do with how his injury was affecting his work.
By August, 2015, Aidan Flanagan’s psychological health had never been as fragile, living, as he was, with not just a work-related, life-transforming condition, but with what he perceived as the vindictive attitude of management towards him.
“The children were going back to school and the prescription (for painkillers) was in the chemist,” he says. “I’d no pain medication for 10 days and these were powerful painkillers. I was beginning to suffer withdrawal symptoms and my wife was concerned I was suicidal. We were at our wits’ ends.”
At one point of despair, he contacted a friend in the force, breaking down as he described what he and his family were enduring.
The friend told him to book himself into John Of God’s, where he would get appropriate treatment.
Without that relief and help, he would be incapable of addressing the other stressors that were bearing down on him and his family.
So, Aidan Flanagan drove to Dublin and remained in the hospital for 10 days, attempting to piece together a life and career that had promised so much, but which had come crashing down.
He could accept the vagaries of life that battered his body. He simply could not accept, or even understand, why management in the force were treating him not as a victim, but, as he perceived it, an irritant to be ground down into submission.
A rising star
In his early 20s, Aidan Flanagan was a man with a bright future. After completing his Leaving Certificate, he went to UCG to study for an arts degree. While there, he applied successfully to join the guards.
He had family in the force, but, more than that, the job had a vocational attraction for him. There was also his status as a rising star of hurling in Tipperary. The guards have always been a comfortable home for those who excel in GAA.
Flanagan’s proficiency in the game was spotted at an early age in his club, Boherlahan, located between Thurles and Cashel. He won an All Ireland under-21 medal with the county and was called up to the senior panel in 1996. He captained the county team in the 1997 National League and was on the bench when Tipp met Clare in that year’s All Ireland final.
By then, his career in the gardaí was also taking off. After graduating, in 1996, he was briefly stationed in Dublin, before being transferred to Togher, in Cork City.
On June 17, 1998, fate dealt him the first serious blow. He and a colleague were involved in a high-speed collision on the Link Road, in Cork, when a car drove onto the dual carriageway, from a slip road, without yielding right-of-way and collided with the patrol car.
Flanagan suffered severe back injuries, which kept him out of work for six weeks.
The accident brought an end to his inter-county hurling career, and he found himself in some, albeit manageable, pain.
It was also discovered that he had a degenerative condition in his back, which, over decades, might have resulted in problems.
The pain worsened over the following years, necessitating surgery in 2002. Following that, his health improved and he was able to return to club hurling and to playing golf, a game at which he had also excelled prior to the accident.
He had also returned to study, pursuing qualifications that would help him towards his chosen speciality within the force — working as a junior liaison officer.
In November, 2004, another work accident occurred. Flanagan and a colleague were pursuing a number of suspects through the garden of a private house, when he slipped on a wet piece of plywood, landing heavily on his lower back.
In light of his history, he feared the worst, but the injury was not significant, although there would be some argument later as to whether it contributed to a subsequent injury.
Then, in August, 2005, the hazards of the job hit him again. He and a colleague were investigating the theft of alcohol in the Barrack Street area of Cork. They managed to track down the culprit, who was known to them, and arrested him.
The suspect was extremely violent. Flanagan and his female colleague eventually got him into the back of the patrol car, but he continued to lash out.
Although Garda Flanagan was the designated driver, he told his colleague to drive and he would sit in the back of the car and attempt to control the prisoner. As he did so, the prisoner lashed out, kicked him in the back, exploded his old injury, and ignited pain of a whole new order.
Aidan Flanagan’s life was never the same after that. Like all frontline workers, he knew the hazards of the job. He knew that the chances of assault, and consequent injury, or worse, were far higher than for a civilian. As such, he could accept his fate, notwithstanding the pain that was now a constant in his life. What he never would have guessed was the reaction from management within the force.
In the months after the assault, the prognosis was that he would recover, to a large extent, within 18 months to two years.
This didn’t happen. Despite his determination to get back to work, he was out for long periods. The developing situation, in which his work and sporting careers now looked to be severely constrained, had a major impact on his psychological health. He was referred to see two psychiatrists.
One diagnosis was that he was suffering from “significant depressive disorder and prolonged adjustment disorder”, as a direct result of the assault and the impact the injury was having on his life.
He was also being constantly treated by medical consultants for the pain, and further surgery was contemplated.
In April, 2007, he was deployed to the control room in Anglesea Street station, in Cork. This effectively confined him to light duties. Despite that, the pain grew worse and, later that year, he was prescribed opiate-based painkillers.
Also that year, he married Siobhan and they began a family. Two years later, medical opinion confirmed that he was suffering from chronic pain syndrome, and he was implanted with a spinal-chord stimulator.
By 2010, Adrian Flanagan was resigned to the fact that his garda career was effectively over. He felt that, on the basis that his injuries occurred while on duty, he was entitled to be medically discharged. This would have entitled him to a pension. He had acquired copious medical opinion that his condition would not improve.
In July, 2010, the chief medical officer (CMO) of An Garda Síochána, Donal Collins, determined that Flanagan’s condition was other than work-related. This decision was, under the circumstances, bizarre, and in dispute with the opinion of a number of medical practitioners.
High Court judge, Bernard Barton, would rule that, in one memo written by the CMO at the time, he “advised that the applicant’s (Flanagan) treating physicians had expected a recovery to have taken place within approximately 24 months of the assault; advice which, not to put too fine a point on it, was a misrepresentation and factual distortion of their opinions.”
Instead, the CMO relied on other medical opinion. He recommended that Aidan Flanagan continue to be employed, doing “light duty” rather than full policing.
The effect of the decision was that his pay was stopped thereafter whenever he was not at work, which was frequently, given his condition.
Not just that, but the ruling was backdated by 18 months. To that extent, the injured garda was informed that he owed the State €14,000.
Flanagan was devastated. He felt abandoned by the force.
“Like most people who join the guards, I knew that it could be dangerous and that things happen,” he says.
“We hear about the tragic murder of members, but the public don’t hear much about the guards that get their jaw broken, kicked in the eye, teeth broken.
“We don’t look for special treatment, just fair treatment. We’re doing an important job and when something goes wrong, we should be looked after.”
Over the years to follow, Aidan Flanagan’s circumstances worsened. He continued to be out of work for extended periods.
He was provided with a special seat in the control room in Anglesea Street, to take some account of his condition. At one point, the seat broke and was never properly repaired.
Dealing with the pain was one thing, but now he also had to come to terms with the opiate-based painkillers, which medical opinion had deemed necessary.
“The painkillers were powerful,” he says. “Once, at a Tipp- Kilkenny national hurling league final, I actually fell asleep. My friend had to wake me up.
“My colleagues at rank-and-file level were wonderful,” he says. “But you’re dealing with a very powerful animal in management. Once the CMO decides that your injury be reclassified, there is no appeal allowed. My solicitor wrote and was told there was no appeal process.”
He went through further operations. At work, he had difficulty concentrating and at times even staying awake. Yet his work entailed answering emergency calls, which required an urgent response to various situations, including life-threatening cases.
In September, 2013, he reached a nadir, as far as work was concerned. Aidan remembers it as the day of the All Ireland hurling final replay, between Cork and Clare.
“I had been making mistakes, because of the painkillers,” he says. “And that day, there was a 999 call about a theft in a city store. I typed in what I’d been told by the caller and a colleague came in and looked at it. It was gobbledegook. Just incoherent. I could hardly talk to him, when he asked me. I was just so far under.”
He left early and got on the road, but pulled into a layby, before reaching his home in Midleton. He didn’t want Siobhan to see him arrive home early, loading further stress onto their lives.
Despite now facing a scenario where he might be deprived of any income, there was no going back to work as a police officer.
“I knew it was over, judge,” he related later, in High Court proceedings. “I knew I could never, ever go back inside the door of a garda station again. It was over.
“It was finished. I couldn’t continue on.”
There were persistent attempts, in the months that followed, to get him to come back to work.
Eventually, an officer was sent to his house to issue him with an instruction to return or face disciplinary proceedings.
“This was in May (of 2014). I was due to have another operation, a few days later, on the 16th. I had to ask him, ‘do you want me to return before the operation’. It was crazy.”
He now found himself unable to work, but was receiving no pay.
The following year, indignity was piled on when he was subjected to a three-day disciplinary hearing over his failure to return to work. Ultimately, he was cleared, but the experience was harrowing.
Judge Barton referenced the disciplinary hearing in his ruling, pointing out that garda documents show that “there was, in point of fact, no basis for proffering disciplinary charges against the applicant and for the enormous, unnecessary stress and anxiety which, I have no doubt, were visited upon him as a result.”
Then, in August, 2015, two months after the hearing, came the lowest point. Unable to provide for his family or to pay for the painkillers, he made the journey to Dublin to book himself into John of God’s.
Later that year, he initiated the High Court proceedings that ended with the award, last week, of €1.16m.
A belated victory
The court sat for 22 days and the legal costs might even exceed the award made to Aidan Flanagan.
Yet, he was fought all the way, for attempting to be treated as a public servant who had received a horrendous injury in service to the State.
He can’t fathom why he was treated as he was. The only explanation he can come up with is that the fall-out from his injuries occurred at a time when there were severe cutbacks in the force.
In such an atmosphere, priorities get waylaid. No explanation, beyond the medical opinion, which was dismissed by the High Court judge, has ever been forwarded.
“There was no understanding of what had been done to me,” Aidan Flanagan says.
“And, once word came down from the Phoenix Park, there was no interest in questioning whether it could be right. By then, I was no longer a human being, a member of the force. I was just a file.”
Psychiatrist’s ‘joke’ backfired for the State
“So, you’re a bit of a nutcase, are you?” That’s how Aidan Flanagan claimed that
psychiatrist, Dr Patrick Devitt, greeted him on their first appointment.
Flanagan was referred to Dr Devitt for assessment of his mental health in 2009. The doctor denies he used those exact words.
In the High Court action, the psychiatrist said that words to that effect may have been used, but, if so, they were intended as an “icebreaker” to put the injured garda at ease.
“If that was Dr Devitt’s intention, it backfired dramatically,” Judge Bernard Barton ruled. “Accepting that he had gathered himself and participated in the assessment, the applicant (Flanagan) continued to be upset afterwards; he subsequently instructed his solicitor to complain about the remark and made a request that further psychiatric assessment be carried out by another consultant; the request was denied.”
Aidan Flanagan had been referred to Dr Devitt by the force’s chief medical officer, Donal Collins. He was to provide an independent opinion of the psychological impact that the 2005 assault, and consequent injury, had on the garda.
After two meetings, the psychiatrist provided an assessment.
“He concluded that the assault could not be considered emotionally traumatic, that the psychological symptoms, which included frustration, irritability, low mood and reduced self-esteem, were indirectly related to the assault, and that the symptoms reflected aspects of the applicant’s personality and coping mechanisms,” the judge ruled.
The assessment by Dr Devitt contributed to the garda chief medical officer’s decision that Aidan Flanagan’s extensive injuries were not work-related and to deny him a medical discharge from the force.
The assessment was not just crucial, but controversial. In 2006 and 2007, Flanagan had been examined by psychiatrists, John Tobin and the late Anthony Clare. Both were of the opinion that the garda was suffering directly as a result of the violent incident. Their opinions were that Flanagan would have great difficulty continuing as a garda and that the assault had a major impact on his mental health.
Judge Barton summed up the conflicts in his ruling.
“He (Devitt) concluded that, from a mental health perspective, there was no evidence that the applicant (Flanagan) was incapable of carrying out garda duties. He had been furnished with the reports of Professor Clare, Dr Tobin, and letters from Dr Dennehy (another psychiatrist who had examined Flanagan), but made no reference to, nor observation or comment upon, any of the views they had expressed. This omission is significant, in light of his opinion to the contrary, which he formed in relation to the nature, cause, and categorisation of the applicant’s psychological condition, an opinion on which the CMO relied, in giving his advices to garda management, the consequences of which, as will be seen later, were financially and psychologically devastating for the applicant.”
The judge also expressed surprise at the failure of the CMO to take into account the reports from the two psychiatrists who had reported that Flanagan’s condition was related to his work.
“While there is no evidence to warrant a conclusion that the reports were suppressed, in the absence of an explanation as to why the opinions of Professor Clare and Dr Tobin were not relied upon, the court is driven to the conclusion that their opinions were considered at least unhelpful to the position which had been adopted by management and, at worse, as supportive of the position being advocated on behalf of the applicant (Flanagan).”
There was also conflict in relation to the physical injuries themselves, between different consultants and doctors retained by the CMO to give independent opinions.
The judge noted that the CMO, Dr Collins, had adopted a position that was at odds with a lot of the medical opinion that he had gathered.
“The CMO wrote a number of reports and letters between 2009 and April, 2015, in which he set out his opinion and advices. It is evident from the outset that he took a quite different view from that of the applicant’s physicians, concerning the nature of the injuries and consequential, vocational implications attributable to the assault.”
Dr Collins did not give evidence at the High Court hearing. This was surprising on two fronts. At the disciplinary hearing in 2015, which, to a large extent, dealt with the same issues, he did give evidence. That hearing ended with exoneration for Garda Flanagan.
Apart from that, though, this was a major action, which would leave the State with a very considerable bill, in the event of Aidan Flanagan being successful.
Yet, the central figure on the garda side was not even called to give evidence.
He had since retired, but that would not have affected his evidence or the State’s decision on whether to call him.
“The CMO did not give evidence at the hearing,” the judge’s ruling noted.
“It was submitted, on behalf of the applicant, that the court should draw a number of significant inferences adverse to the respondent, by reason of his failure to do so. Given the importance which garda management attached to his views and those physicians categorised as ‘independent, specialist advisers’, relied upon so heavily by the CMO and the respondent and given his knowledge that Professor Clare and Dr Tobin had assessed and reported on the applicant, the court is left with no explanation why he did not refer to either of their opinions, particularly as they had also been retained to advise ‘independently’ on the applicant’s psychological status and fitness for work.”