AFM ordered to pay €178,500 to family of soldier who died in training exercise

AFM was found responsible for negligence and lack of diligence, after a gunner drowned during a military exercise at Chadwick Lakes

Gunner Matthew Psaila drowned during a military exercise at Chadwick Lakes
Gunner Matthew Psaila drowned during a military exercise at Chadwick Lakes

The family of an AFM gunner who died during a training exercise in February 2009 have been awarded €178,500 in compensation, after a judge found the AFM responsible for negligence and lack of diligence.

Gunner Matthew Psaila died tragically after finding himself in difficulty during a military exercise at Chadwick Lakes. The court appointed experts established that the soldier – who did not know how to swim- had drowned after becoming hypothermic as he navigated an underwater tunnel in the freezing cold waters.

Madam Justice Joanne Vella Cuschieri, in her 72-page assessment of the case, noted that even some soldiers who knew how to swim needed assistance due to the weight of their equipment, battledress clothing and boots.

The experts reported several serious safety shortcomings in the exercise’s planning and management. The depth of the water in the tunnel was not checked and nobody had tested the route beforehand wearing full equipment like the soldiers on the day. There were insufficient trained safety personnel and the safety equipment provided consisted of “just four life rings and a rope which were in a vehicle on the bridge over the water.” The soldiers themselves were not instructed to keep an eye out for their colleagues and this led to Psaila’s absence going unnoticed for too long, the experts said.

The court observed that no checks on the height and temperature of the water in question were carried out before the exercise and there was no written reconnaissance report on the path to be taken by the soldiers. Neither were there any Standard Operating Procedures in place regulating how to carry out such exercises, at the time.

The AFM had also ignored safety concerns raised by senior officers, noted the court. One officer testified that Commander of the AFM at the time would reply that safeguarding health and safety was “not a priority,” when he would make suggestions to improve the situation. A Health and Safety section was later set up in the aftermath of Psaila’s death, in December 2010.

The judge noted that the officers at the scene had been ordered to carry out the exercise by their superiors and had little choice but to make do with what they were provided, without individual health and safety information on the soldiers                and just six supervisors.

The court said it was aware that no sum of money would make up for the loss of a son, but for the purposes of establishing the sum due in compensation, it took into account the soldier’s pay, his age and other factors, obtaining the amount of €178,500. No deduction was made for lump sum payment in this case.

Lawyer Michael Tanti Dougall represented the family of Matthew Psaila in the proceedings.