10 May 2023

Charges dismissed against Woolworths worker who allegedly poured hand sanitiser into colleague's water bottle

| Albert McKnight
woman leaving court

The defendant leaves the Canberra courts after her hearing in April. Photo: Albert McKnight.

A Woolworths employee who allegedly poured hand sanitiser into her colleague’s drink bottle at a supermarket self-service checkout before the latter drank from it has had charges laid over the incident dismissed, clearing her of any criminal conduct.

Closed-circuit television footage captures the defendant picking up the complainant’s water bottle in Calwell Woolworths on 23 June 2021, unscrewing its cap, pouring something from another bottle into it, and then putting it back.

It was alleged she poured some contents from a 500 ml bottle of hand and surface spray into the water bottle.

The complainant said she left her water bottle on a shelf at the self-service checkout that morning, the ACT Magistrates Court heard in a hearing in April.

She said she went for a tea break while she was replaced by her colleague, the defendant, whom she had known for the 10 years she had worked at the store.

When she returned from her break, she said she took a drink from her water bottle but realised something was wrong.

She said the water tasted very bitter and strong and smelled like spirit alcohol. She said she coughed and spluttered and felt a “burning” through her throat and into her stomach. Another colleague described the water as smelling “chemical”.

“I was in a lot of shock,” the complainant told the court.

The complainant said she was taken to the manager’s office and waited for Woolworths to call a doctor to help her, but claimed “nobody helped” her, so she went home.

She estimated the burning sensation lasted for about three days but gradually subsided.

“I was crying non-stop. I was very, very distraught,” she said.

“I was waiting for Woolworths to help me in any way and they didn’t. I said there’s a duty of care. I was poisoned.”

But she claimed nothing happened, so she went to police herself on 26 June.

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Under cross-examination from the defendant’s barrister Travis Jackson, she accepted the defendant didn’t hand her the water bottle and hadn’t seen her touch the bottle or the hand sanitiser.

The prosecutor said it was not her case that there was any encouragement or active steps taken to encourage the complainant to consume the substance. But she said no one else had touched the bottle, which had the complainant’s name on it, between when the defendant interfered with it and when another employee handed it to the complainant.

The CCTV showed the “covert nature” in which the defendant “tampered” with the water bottle, she alleged.

“It’s not drink-spiking in the traditional sense, but it looks a lot like it,” Magistrate Ken Archer commented.

The defendant fought two charges at a hearing: administering or causing an injurious substance to be taken by another person with the intent to injure, as well as a backup charge of giving or causing another person to consume food or drink with an intoxicating substance.

However, on Tuesday (9 May), Magistrate Archer ultimately dismissed both charges.

He said he could not see that the defendant had done anything to cause the complainant to consume the drink.

He did say he was satisfied the defendant did, for reasons unknown, cause some contents from a hand sanitiser bottle to go into the complainant’s water bottle.

However, for the charge to be successful, he said he also had to be satisfied the hand sanitiser was an “injurious substance”, but there was no expert evidence to say so in the case.

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Magistrate Archer said hand sanitisers probably were injurious substances, but he had to be certain that the particular substance in the bottle was injurious beyond reasonable doubt.

The prosecutor argued the magistrate could find the substance consumed was injurious on the basis of the complainant’s evidence of its effect on her, as well as from the CCTV footage that showed the defendant putting it onto her hands.

But the court heard an issue was that while a bottle of hand sanitiser was eventually seized from the supermarket store, this did not happen for several days.

It was conceded that the bottle given to police might not have been the same bottle that was at the self-service checkout at the time of the incident.

Region has chosen not to name the defendant as her charges were dismissed.

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