Wrongfully jailed man sues Queensland for $2.1m, alleging police officer acted with malice

A former British policeman wrongfully jailed for more than 200 days has lodged a $2.1m lawsuit against the state of Queensland and a police officer who – court documents allege – stated he “hated” the man, threatened to beat his wife and unnecessarily searched through her underwear drawers.

Former London Metropolitan police officer Eamonn Charles Coughlan was imprisoned for arson and attempted insurance fraud in 2019, but fully exonerated by the high court the following year.

Coughlan claims in court documents that the constable who prosecuted him, Benjamin Andrew Weare, acted with malice and failed in 32 separate ways to properly investigate an explosion and fire at Coughlan’s Bribie Island property in July 2015.

The malicious prosecution claim lodged in the Queensland supreme court alleges Weare made a false statement, communicated inappropriately with witnesses and did not properly disclose evidence.

It says Weare was motivated to lay charges by a complaint of inappropriate behaviour that Coughlan had made about the officer. The documents do not go into detail about that complaint.

Coughlan – a Met police officer from 1988 to 2001 – was denied legal aid and represented himself during criminal proceedings. Two district court trials were aborted. At a third trial, he was convicted of arson and attempted insurance fraud and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

During more than seven months detained at the Woodford correctional centre near Brisbane, Coughlan claims he was knocked unconscious by a fellow inmate, stabbed with a needle by an intravenous drug user and denied prescription medication.

He says he was forced to live in cramped, squalid conditions in which prisoners were “doubled up” – two prisoners living in accommodation built for one. He says he slept on the floor, half a metre from the toilet, on a urine-stained piece of foam.

Coughlan was released from prison in February 2020, when the high court unanimously overturned his convictions and entered verdicts of not guilty to both charges. The court found that, based on the circumstances, “it was not open to the jury” to find Coughlan guilty.

The judgment did not contain direct criticisms of Weare, but noted the officer’s acknowledgment that he did not investigate anyone else and that he told various people he “hated” Coughlan.

Coughlan’s civil claim alleges Weare’s “sole and dominant purpose” in investigating the fire was to prosecute Coughlan.

Among 32 alleged failures by police are allegations officers did not prepare a formal investigation plan; did not properly investigate other potential suspects; and failed to make inquiries seeking witnesses or evidence that corroborated Coughlan’s statements.

The claim alleges police failed to investigate Coughlan’s financial circumstances. He had made improvements to the property destroyed in the fire, such that it was worth more than the insurance policy he held. The high court ultimately found this amounted to an “absence of financial motive”.

The claim also cites several “inappropriate” emails sent by Weare to witnesses during criminal proceedings against Coughlan. One of those apologises to witnesses who “through no fault of you [sic] own have been personally attacked and the subject of frivolous and vexatious complaints by this man”.

The court documents allege that Weare declined to take a statement from Coughlan’s wife and that he later knowingly swore a false statement himself, which claimed incorrectly that Coughlan’s wife had declined to provide a statement.

Coughlan alleges in the claim that Weare searched through his wife’s underwear drawers in a way that unnecessarily “interfered with her privacy”.

According to court documents, at Burpengary police station on 22 July 2015 – a few days after the fire – Weare allegedly made threats to Couglan’s wife.

“[Weare] made threats to [Coughlan’s wife] … to the effect that under no circumstances would [Coughlan] receive an insurance payout for the damage done to the property by the fire and that [Weare] would wait until [she] was in private before she was beaten and her possessions interfered with,” the statement of claim says.

On the same day, Weare is alleged to have pushed his finger in Coughlan’s face.

The claim says Weare and the state failed to properly disclose evidence to Coughlan. This included a failure to disclose criminal histories of witnesses until shortly before a first aborted trial; and a failure to disclose information about contemporaneous suspected arson incidents on Bribie Island until after the commencement of the third trial.

Weare and another officer also “concerned themselves inappropriately” with the progress of Coughlan’s insurance claim, the court documents allege.

Coughlan is seeking $2.1m in damages, plus costs and interest. He details significant pain and suffering, psychological harm and damage to his reputation.

The state of Queensland and Weare have yet to file a notice of intention to defend the claim.

A police spokesperson told Guardian Australia: “These matters are presently subject to litigation processes and therefore the Queensland police service is unable to comment on the proceedings at this time.”

Weare was also contacted for comment.