Scotch probe urged over nut allergy death
Selma Milovanovic, The Age - Melbourne, Australia
July 1, 2009
The role of Scotch College in the death of a teenage boy who had a fatal allergic reaction to peanuts while on a school-run Army cadet camp should be investigated by the Victorian Coroner, a judge has said as he fined the Army $210,000 for negligence.
Federal Court Justice Tony North fined the Army over the death of Nathan Francis, 13, who died after eating a mouthful of beef satay at Wombat State Forest in March 2007. A written warning by Nathan's mother about the boy's allergy was ignored by the school, which told parents not to send their own food as "great care" had been taken to prepare meals for the camp.
Justice North, who described Nathan's death as "every parent's worst nightmare", said the elite school should face scrutiny over giving two other boys with peanut allergies the same beef satay and allowing six others to be lost in the forest for 18 hours without radio contact during the same camp.
"The finding that the Commonwealth is liable ... does not mean that no other person or body was responsible for Nathan's death," Justice North said. "The circumstances … raise a question whether Scotch College, through its teachers and staff, bear some responsibility for these events."
He urged that an "irrational" law be changed to allow fines from negligence cases to be paid to victims' families or public safety bodies instead of money changing hands between two government agencies.
Nathan's parents, Brian and Jessica Francis, who are expecting a child, backed calls for an inquest and said they would consider whether to sue the school, where their younger son, Justin, is a student, after any inquest.
Comcare, the federal work safety body, mounted a civil case against the Commonwealth for breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act over Nathan's death and the six lost boys. Despite the camp being run by Scotch College, the Chief of Army was responsible for safety, because Army cadets are legally Commonwealth employees.
The ration pack given to Nathan was labelled "beef satay" in barely legible letters. The school employee who distributed the packs did not know Nathan and six other boys were allergic to peanuts, despite other camp organisers compiling medical lists.
Army cadets can now only use the packs if they carry food-allergy warnings. The ADF now tells parents of cadets with food allergies to provide their own food for camps if they wish.
The Army, which apologised to the Francis family, admitted Nathan's death was preventable and "exposed systemic faults".
Justice North adjourned for a year the Army's undertaking to improve systems to protect cadet safety, in relation to the six lost boys. Guidelines on peanut allergies were distributed to Victorian schools in late 2006 and Scotch College medical cards asked students whether they were at risk of anaphylaxis, or life-threatening allergic reaction to peanuts.
Mr and Mrs Francis told the court they were hurt by the fact that former principal Gordon Donaldson never visited the family, but commended the current principal, I Tom Batty, for doing so.
But they told the court they felt betrayed by the elite school, which had no peanut allergy policy and seemed "utterly ignorant". Mr Francis said yesterday the death of Nathan was avoidable.
"His death haunts us every single day of our lives. We're going to become parents again shortly and our family is all the poorer for not having Nathan with us."
Scotch College Principal I Tom Batty said the school, which would continue to fully co-operate with the coroner, now had peanut allergy guidelines.
He again expressed "sincere sorrow and deep regret" to the Francis family.