ROBINSON V STATE OF QUEENSLAND [2017] QSC 165: EMPLOYEE AWARDED ALMOST 1.5 MILLION IN NEGLIGENCE LAWSUIT AGAINST EMPLOYER

ROBINSON V STATE OF QUEENSLAND [2017] QSC 165: EMPLOYEE AWARDED ALMOST 1.5 MILLION IN NEGLIGENCE LAWSUIT AGAINST EMPLOYER

Workplace bullying and harassment are real and unfortunately still happen today.  In a recent Queensland decision, an employee was awarded almost 1.5 million dollars after suffering from workplace harassment, bullying and managerial mistreatment.

The case is Robinson v State of Queensland [2017] QSC 165.  This case acts as an important reminder for employers to be vigilant in taking reasonable care of their employees to avoid psychiatric injury.

BACKGROUND

The Plaintiff, Mrs Robinson, was a registered nurse and the District Director of Nursing at the Cape York Health Service based at Weipa in Queensland.  She reported to the District Chief Executive Officer, Ms Turner.  Mrs Robinson had no history of psychological or psychiatric issues.

Mrs Robinson alleged that she had suffered a psychiatric injury as a consequence of repeated managerial mistreatment by Ms Turner for which the Defendant was vicariously liable.

Mrs Robinson claimed damages on the basis that the Defendant breached a non-delegable duty to take “reasonable care to avoid exposing her to foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury” and that injury suffered was due to the Defendant’s negligence.

THE COURT’S FINDINGS

Breach of Duty

The Court found that the Defendant was liable for two breaches of duty owed to Mrs Robinson.

1.  Firstly, the Court held the Defendant breached its duty to take reasonable care to avoid psychiatric injury by failing to take “timely and determinative action” on complaints made against Mrs Robinson by an employee, Ms Holmes, and by Mrs Robinson against Ms Holmes. The Court said that while other employees were involved in this breach, the breach was caused by the conduct of Ms Turner, through which the Defendant was held vicariously liable.

Henry J relevantly stated:

“The risk of psychiatric injury to Mrs. Robinson was reasonably foreseeable by reason of the signs progressively exhibited by Mrs. Robinson of a high and increasing degree of emotional concern and distress about Ms. Holmes’ targeting of complaints against her in the WIFs. The risk of such injury was not insignificant, particularly bearing in mind those signs fell for consideration in the light of Mrs. Robinson’s previously expressed concerns…Realistically, the taking of such elementary action would likely be the standard response of any competent manager, even if unconcerned by a risk of psychiatric injury.”

The Court found that the breach of this duty and its effects on Mrs Robinson were “ongoing” and said that “its effect would inevitably been compounded by other forms of managerial mistreatment of Mrs Robinson” which worsened over time.

2.  Secondly, the Court held that the Defendant had breached its duty to take reasonable care by failing to prevent Ms Turner’s course of managerial mistreatment (which the Defendant was vicariously liable for). In reaching this finding, Henry J stated:

“As to whether Ms Turner’s course of managerial mistreatment of Mrs Robinson breached the defendant’s duty to take precautions against a risk of psychiatric injury to Mrs Robinson, the risk was reasonably foreseeable by reason of the very nature of the type of behaviour involved. In an era when the potentially grave psychological harm done by workplace harassment and bullying is well known, unjustified blaming, humiliation, belittling, isolation, undermining and contemptuous disregard of an employee by a CEO was conduct collectively raising a foreseeable and not insignificant risk of psychiatric injury. Moreover, as already noted, during 2010 Mrs Robinson exhibited heightened emotional distress, to Ms Turner’s knowledge, signalling a higher than ordinary risk of psychiatric injury in reaction to Ms Turner’s continuing course of managerial mistreatment of her.

The probability of potentially serious psychiatric injury from such behaviour is sufficiently well known that a reasonable employer would take precautions against such conduct occurring.”

The Court further said that the Defendant’s imputed knowledge of Ms Turner’s conduct, meant that it should have intervened to prevent the continuation of the course of conduct.

What behaviour constitutes managerial misconduct?

The Court set out in detail, the instances found to demonstrate a course of managerial mistreatment of Mrs Robinson by Ms Turner (see paragraph 299 of the judgement if you are interested).  In summary, these included unjustified blaming, humiliation, belittling, isolation, undermining and contemptuous disregard of Mrs Robinson.

Was the psychiatric injury caused by the breaches?

The Court found that the breaches were causative of the psychiatric injury suffered by Mrs Robinson.

Henry J said:

“But for the breaches there would have occurred timely and determinative action” on the Holmes WIFs, quelling any material potential concern about Ms Holmes, and Mrs Robinson would not have been subjected to a course of managerial mistreatment, leaving her in an ordinary emotional state. The necessary conditions of the occurrence of her psychiatric injury would not have existed. But for the breaches Mrs Robinson’s psychiatric injury would not have occurred.”

DAMAGES

In total, Mrs Robinson was awarded a sum of $1,468,991.11 made up of the following:

1.  General damages = $41,200.00.

2.  Past economic loss = $676,335.78 (for being unable to return to remunerative work).

3.  Interest on past economic loss = $41,918.59.

4.  Past loss of superannuation = $37,384.14.

5.  Special damages = $74,782.94 (e.g. for medical expenses, rehabilitation expenses, mediation expenses, travel expenses).

6.  Interest on special damages = $2,185.10.

7.  Future economic loss = $661,276.00 (the Court accepted the opinions of two psychiatrists who regard Mrs Robinson as being permanently incapacitated from undertaking any form of remunerative work).

8.  Future loss of superannuation = $66,954.19.

9.  Future expenses = $50,793.60 (e.g. for long term continuation of medication, counselling and psychiatric consultations).

10.  Fox v Wood = $50,700.00 (for additional income tax paid in respect of refundable workers’ compensation receipts).

11.  Less WorkCover refund $234,539.23.

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