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When a police reservist shot his girlfriend and then killed himself, it came as a shock to everyone in Pearston, writes Carmel Rickard.

When a police reservist shot his girlfriend in the face, fired at her mother and then killed himself, it came as a traumatic shock to everyone in the tiny Eastern Cape community of Pearston, where they lived.

Johannes Mongo, 40, died at the scene. Elsa Booysen, 30, survived, but she has been left disfigured and suffering constant pain.

This week, though she had some good news for the first time since that terrible night in March 2013 when Mongo attacked her and took his life – she has won the vital first part of a court battle for compensation.

After the shooting, Port Elizabeth attorney Lineen Swarts launched a claim against the safety and security minister on her behalf.

The outcome was far from certain, but now Judge Clive Plasket, sitting in the High Court in Grahamstown, has found the police liable to pay damages, plus her legal costs.

Booysen told the court she had no idea why Mongo, who had the rank of constable, attacked her.

He came around to her house as usual that evening, dressed in his police uniform and carrying his regulation 9mm Parabellum semi-automatic pistol, issued to him by the shift commander when he started work that afternoon.

He was on night duty and, as usual when he worked nights, he was dropped off for supper at Booysen’s house by an official police vehicle.

Afterwards, he was always picked up again by another official vehicle to continue his shift.

On this occasion, Booysen said, Mongo offered to buy everyone soft drinks and seemed quite normal.

After supper, however, while the two of them were waiting for the official vehicle, he drew his pistol and, without warning, shot her in the face, fired at her mother who came to see what was happening, and then turned the pistol on himself.

Booysen’s mother suffered an injury to her foot but Booysen has been left horribly disfigured by the shot, fired at close range.

She will need reconstructive surgery by way of multiple operations and extensive treatment.

Giving evidence, Booysen said she had not foreseen something like this happening.

She agreed that the police could well also have been taken by surprise, not knowing that something was wrong.

So, if the police could not be blamed for ignoring clues about Mongo’s state of mind, on what basis could the court find they should pay damages?

Normally someone – in this case the police – would only be liable for a damages claim if that person has caused harm to someone else.

But there is an exception.

This is when, as the judge put it, “an employer who has committed no wrong is held liable for the consequences of his or her employee’s wrongful and unlawful conduct“.

The big question for the judge to decide was therefore whether the attack on Booysen was carried out by Mongo “in the course and scope of his employment”.

If a police officer, on holiday and wearing plainclothes, got drunk and attacked someone with a knife picked up on the street, it could be very hard to prove these were actions carried out “in the course” of the officer’s job.

But what about Mongo’s situation?

In previous cases the courts have found the police liable where an officer had used a police-issue firearm for an unlawful shooting.

Mongo had also used a police weapon, in fact it was the same pistol issued to him earlier that night when he reported for duty.

It was, as in previous similar cases, “the very means by which the crime was committed”, and Judge Plasket said he agreed with earlier decisions in which the courts said that holding the police liable in circumstances like this would encourage stricter control over issuing firearms.

He said he also considered that Mongo was on duty, was dressed in uniform and had been dropped off for dinner by a police vehicle that would also have picked him up again, after he had eaten. Putting all this together, the judge concluded the police were therefore liable.

Commenting after judgment was delivered, Swarts said the outcome would make a huge difference to Booysen as she could now have proper reconstructive surgery. “She has been to hell and back. It’s very difficult for her. People can’t understand what she says and she can’t even eat properly,” Swarts said.

* Carmel Rickard is a legal affairs specialist. Email [email protected] or visit www.tradingplaces2night.co.za

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star