James v State of Queensland [2018] QSC 188

Judgement delivered 10 December 2018, Mackay, by Henry J

The Plaintiff began working as a paramedic in 1991. In 2004, he was stationed with the Queensland Ambulance Service (“QAS”) at Mt Isa, sometimes relieving at Doomadgee, a single officer station [3]-[4].

Four incidents occurred throughout 2004 which resulted in the Plaintiff ceasing work and being diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressed mood and later with PTSD [5]-[7].

Three incidents occurred while the Plaintiff was the single attending officer stationed at Doomadgee and one occurred during training in Mt Isa [5], [24]-[130]:

  1. 30 September 2004: the Plaintiff attended to a teenage boy who had been gruesomely mauled by dogs and died during air transport.
  2. 16 October 2004: the Plaintiff transported a three year old girl who had been orally raped.
  3. 10 November 2004: the Plaintiff responded badly to correction by supervisors during training in Mt Isa, by swearing, yelling and leaving the training location.
  4. 13 November 2004: the Plaintiff attended to a six year old girl who had been vaginally raped and injured.

At the time of the incidents, QAS had in place Priority One, a four-part system for supporting the mental well-being of its staff. This consisted of:

  1. Peer support by peer supporters: some paramedics are trained as peer supporters, and are accessible as colleagues of paramedics who may need assistance.
  2. Self-referral counselling: a number of counsellors, not associated with QAS are available to paramedics and their families, with the first three sessions paid for by QAS.
  3. Telephone counselling service: a 24-hour telephone line available to paramedics and their families at no cost and with complete anonymity.
  4. Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (“CISD”): a debriefing provided after a major incident of a traumatic nature, provided specifically to groups.

Issues

[11] The issue is not whether QAS owed the Plaintiff a duty to take reasonable care to avoid psychiatric injury, but whether it breached that duty of care.

[15] The Plaintiff alleged that QAS breached its duty by reference to:

  • The adequacy of Priority One;
  • The failure to activate Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD); and,
  • Failure to respond to the training incident as signalling a need for intervention.

Decisions on the Issues

Priority One was adequate: [131] – [155]

  • The Plaintiff knew about access to Priority One [135] – [140], and, after the first incident, he told the peer support officer and others that he was okay and did not want assistance or counselling.
  • Although the Plaintiff alleged that a system of mandatory counselling should have “ensured” he received counselling and psychological support, the Court held that an “employer’s obligation is to take reasonable care, not invasive or dictatorial care” [148].
  • A system of mandatory counselling had been trialled by the QAS and was found to involve a number of negative impacts, outweighing potential positive impacts [151] – [155].

Failure to activate CISD was not a breach: [156] – [181]

  • Although evidence indicated doubts as to the usefulness of CISD, the Court held that it was in any event not the appropriate action, as it was designed for group debriefing, not one-on-one consultations [178]. Further, in any event, there was an activation of one-on-one contact by a peer support officer [179].

Failure to respond to the training incident was not a breach [182] – [187]:

  • Given the Plaintiff’s repeated opposition to the training, and evidence he was not prepared, his reaction to being corrected was explicable in the normal course of events [183]. As such, his behaviour was not “such as to ‘raise a red flag’ indicating to QAS that he needed some form of debriefing or other psychological support [187].

Therefore, claim dismissed [192].

David Cormack – Brisbane Barrister & Mediator

Research Assistant – Madeleine Bowater

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