The Armed Forces of Malta has been ordered to pay almost €180,000 by way of compensation to the family of a young soldier who died as a result of a gruelling training exercise at Chadwick Lakes 12 years ago.

Failures by the army “exceeded by far” those of the victim, who was attributed 20% of the blame for the fatal episode, the court decided.

The remaining 80% was attributable solely to the AFM which was to compensate the Psaila family €178,500 by way of damages for the incident.

The sum was awarded to the parents and brother of gunner Matthew Psaila, the 19-year-old soldier who had joined the army in 2008, before moving on to more intensive training as an infantry officer destined to join the army’s ‘elite’ arm.

That training course, on February 13, 2009, included an exercise that was to be conducted in water and under cold weather conditions. 

A platoon of 29 officers was involved in the “team-building” exercise, despatched in three squads, under the supervision of a group leader and additional safety officers charged with providing safety equipment and first aid assistance if necessary. 

At one point, a number of soldiers ran into difficulties as they made their way through the watercourse, weighed down by military clothing, boots, helmet, webbing and rifle. 

A headcount was taken and that was when Psaila’s absence was noted. 

Some 10 minutes later, the young soldier was found submerged in the deeper waters under a tunnel and was dragged ashore. 

He was administered first aid and was rushed to hospital where he died three days later. 

The cause of death was attributed to “multiple organ failure and massive pulmonary oedema secondary to drowning,” after suffering hypothermia on that cold day, marked by rain and hail showers. 

The victim’s family filed an action for damages claiming that the death had been brought about through the negligence of those charged with overseeing the training exercise.

When delivering judgment on Thursday, the First Hall, Civil Court, presided over by Madam Justice Joanne Vella Cuschieri, assessed extensive evidence, including various reports drawn up by court-appointed technical experts. 

That evidence showed that Psaila could not swim in deep waters and had failed to inform his superiors before venturing further with the training session, part of which involved swimming in deeper waters and struggling against water currents.

However, the victim’s failure was by far outweighed by the army’s own shortcomings.

Although a reconnaissance exercise had been carried out at Chadwick Lakes the day before the fatality, the court observed that, at the time, no written records were kept and the depth of the water throughout the whole course had not been properly checked. 

Health and safety measures were insufficient, with no life jacket for the trainees and life rings and ropes were kept in a vehicle parked at a distance from the group. 

All measures needed to be taken before and during the exercise, including proper reconnaissance, qualified personnel assistance, safety measures and rescue tools, the court said.

Technical expert Brigadier Maurice Calleja reported that in this case, “certain shortcomings could have been avoided”.

The court observed that another four soldiers, besides the victim, had faced difficulties during training and indeed, “it was a godsend” that the army shortcomings” that day did not result in “more injuries and deaths”.

That fact in itself proved how dangerous the exercise was and the AFM had not realised this when it was duty-bound to assess the dangers involved, Madam Justice Vella Cuschieri said.

Lawyer Michael Tanti-Dougall assisted the applicants. 

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