WCRA: needle stick injury causing psychiatric condition – 50% discount for other stressors

White v Hertz Australia Pty Ltd [2017] QSC 82

Daubney J

The plaintiff was employed by the defendant as a vehicle services attendant and leading hand. In March 2013, in the course of his duties, the plaintiff reached into the pockets at the rear of the front seats when his hand was pierced by a needle and syringe which had been left there (the “needle stick injury”).

The plaintiff claimed that as a result of the needle stick injury, he suffered severe psychological injuries:

  1. Post traumatic stress disorder;
  2. Major depressive disorder;
  3. Anxiety disorder; or alternatively
  4. A severe and chronic adjustment disorder

The defendant admitted liability but denied the magnitude of the injuries sustained by the plaintiff. The defendant submitted, inter alia, that it acknowledged that the plaintiff had developed an adjustment disorder because of a fear of having contracted a disease from the needle but, despite advice and reassurance that he had not contracted any disease, the plaintiff’s condition deteriorated due to matters unrelated to the needle stick injury.

Discussion

After examining the evidence, Daubney J stated as follows:

[160] The defendant’s submission was that the evidence led by the plaintiff did not discharge the evidential onus of proving a causal connection between the needle stick incident and the entirety of the ongoing loss and damage claimed by the plaintiff…

[161] The defendant argued that:

(a) the plaintiff had not established a direct unbroken causal relationship between the needle stick incident and his present mental illness because of the presence of many other intervening factors;

(b) Dr De Leacy was unable to reconcile the extent of the plaintiff’s ongoing injury or incapacity and could only do so by matters which were not pleaded or proved in evidence’

(c) the aggravating event with the shoulder in February 2014 is what led to the attendance at the Prince Charles Hospital and the subsequent hospitalisation in the Pine Rivers Hospital under the supervision of Dr Kissoon;

(d) the plaintiff’s present claim is gainsaid by the notice of claim he made relating to his shoulder.

Considering these arguments, his Honour reasoned as follows:

[170] It is clear from the ATSICHS records that the plaintiff’s mental state fluctuated in the course of 2013 after the needle stick incident, but it is equally clear that the mental disturbance which had been instigated by the needle stick incident continued throughout 2013 and into 2014… But even if the severe recurrence of the shoulder condition in early 2014 was a stressor which contributed to a deterioration of the plaintiff’s mental state, it simply cannot be said on the evidence before me that it was a stressor which completely supplanted the ongoing effect of the needle stick incident. Rather, as was consistent with Dr Whiteford’s evidence, the onset of the shoulder symptoms in early 2014 was a further life stressor which was overlaid on the condition of an already vulnerable plaintiff who, not being a “normal person”, was continuing to suffer from the effects of the needle stick incident… In my view, it is clear on the evidence as a whole that the needle stick incident also continued to be a significant contributing factor.

As to the plaintiff’s ongoing concerns with the effects of the needle stick injury, Daubney J considered the report of Dr. Eric De Leacy, psychiatrist:

[172] … Dr De Leacy sought to explain why it was that the plaintiff still harboured the concern after such a considerable period of time. [T]he fact that Dr De Leacy found that explanation in external factors which he said amplified the stress at the time does not mean that the underlying concerns were not actually held by the plaintiff.  Finally, and probably most helpfully, Dr De Leacy concluded with the observation that the plaintiff was not more amenable to accepting that he does not have a serious infection “but he is still highly anxious and highly depressed and his condition is being perpetuated by the ingrained nature of the condition itself that has been present for so long”.

Finding that the needle stick injury was causative of the plaintiff’s ongoing mental health issues, his Honour turned to whether the defendant discharged its evidential burden in respect of other matters impacting assessment of damages. As to the effect of the plaintiff’s shoulder injury on his mental state, his Honour stated:

[176] I accept, particularly in light of Dr Kissoon’s evidence, that the deterioration in the shoulder condition leading to the hospital attendance on 6 February 2014 was of itself a significant stressor which contributed to a deterioration in the plaintiff’s already vulnerable mental health, and was one of the significant contributing factors which led to the necessity for the plaintiff to be hospitalised in the Pine Rivers Hospital.

[179] … The defendant, of course, must take the plaintiff in the condition he is found to be, with such inherent vulnerabilities as he might possess. But equally, it is relevant to note that the evidence does clearly give an indication of a man who would, in any event, have been prone to mental decompensation, in the absence of the needle stick incident, with the application of a stressor of sufficiently significant magnitude. As I have said, it seems to me, considering the evidence as a whole, that the plaintiff’s shoulder condition is likely to have been such a stressor in any event.

As to whether the plaintiff’s marital and interpersonal workplace issues affected his mental state, Daubney J stated that there was insufficient evidence to warrant a finding on this basis.

Assessment

Considering the shoulder condition and its effect his Honour discounted the past and future economic loss and earning capacity components by 50%. His Honour assessed the plaintiff’s damages as $312,506.45 (clear of the refund to the WorkCover Queensland).

David Cormack – Brisbane Barrister & Mediator

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