Policeman who shot colleague during training session ordered to pay over €10,000 in damages

A former police constable who had been accidentally shot by a colleague during an unauthorised training exercise has been awarded over €10,000 in damages

A former police constable who had been accidentally shot by a colleague during an unauthorised training exercise has been awarded over €10,000 in damages.

The case concerns an incident which occurred on May 1st 2009, at White Rocks in Pembroke. Six officers were taking part in a training exercise mimicking a forced entry into a building to arrest a resisting suspect.

Before the exercise began, the sergeant in charge inspected each officer’s weapon to make sure it was unloaded. An eyewitness confirmed that this took place. The participants were ordered to keep their finger off the trigger at all times and hold their weapon and torch close to their chest. Officers were to shout “boom” at targets in lieu of firing at them.

After the exercise, the men were ordered to load their firearms again, pointing them towards the ground.

The plaintiff, Peter Paul Sammut, testified that at one point, whilst defendant Shawn Axiaq was playing the role of a criminal, he disobeyed the sergeant’s orders and pointed his weapon at the plaintiff, pulling the trigger several times. He was told off by the sergeant for this.

Next, the roles were reversed, and the plaintiff was to pretend to be the criminal. But during the simulation, Axiaq entered the room where the plaintiff was hiding, with his torch off and fired a shot point blank at the man, hitting him on the left side of his chest.

During the magisterial inquiry into the incident, Axiaq had testified that at one point, he had thought the exercise was over and had reloaded his weapon. When the exercise resumed, he forgot that he had loaded the pistol and cocked it.

He had later pulled the trigger while shouting “boom” as it came naturally to him, he told the court. The weapon fired and hit his friend.

The court noted that the exercise was not officially authorised; in fact, the Commissioner of Police had raised the defence that the officers involved were defrauding the government by carrying out unauthorised exercises during their work hours, trespassing and making unauthorised use of their service firearms.

The defendant had claimed that it was not true that the plaintiff suffered damages, and if he had, they were the responsibility of the Commissioner of Police as they were on duty at the time.

The plaintiff, in a note of final submissions, argued that the Commissioner had not provided a safe and secure workplace. The court, however, dismissed this argument as it was not the place of work which caused or contributed to the incident.

The court found Axiaq liable for gross negligence, observing that his argument of having carried out the act during working hours - arguing that therefore it was the responsibility of the Commissioner of Police-  showed “a cynicism and great lack of responsibility that no member of the police force should even remotely possess.”

The sergeant who carried out the training session on his personal initiative had taken all precautions and planned the exercise in such a way that firearms, although empty, were not even supposed to be pointed at adversaries – something prohibited by regulations. “Sgt Ransley carries no responsibility for the actions of the defendant Axiaq which consisted of unexpected insubordination.” Likewise, the Commissioner of Police was also not found responsible.

Noting the victim still had problems breathing, a court expert had established a permanent disability percentage of 5%. Mr. Justice Grazio Mercieca, presiding the First Hall of the Civil Court, applying the established formula for damages in such cases, calculated the amount of damages to be paid at €10,119.30.

Peter Paul Sammut was represented by lawyer Michael Tanti Dougall.