WCRA: psychiatric injury & causation in failing to relieve the worker after a traumatic incident

Greenway v The Corporation of the Synod of the Diocese of Brisbane [2016] QDC 195

Kingham DCJ

The plaintiff was employed as a carer for young persons at a residence run by Anglicare. On 25 August 2013, the young person became verbally abusive and physically aggressive when the plaintiff would not allow him to visit a friend. The plaintiff unlocked the staff room but the young person pushed his way into the room and threw a phone at the plaintiff which she used to phone her supervisor (the first call). Eventually, the young person returned to his room, breaking the window and picked up a large shard of glass which he threatened the plaintiff with. She managed to disarm the young person and calm him down but was left to his care alone until the following afternoon. She returned the call to her supervisor and briefed him about the situation.

The plaintiff suffered a psychological injury and subsequently brought a claim against Anglicare alleging that it breached its duty of care to her as her employer. Liability was denied and relevantly, the issues before the court were:

  1. Did Anglicare breach its duty of care to the plaintiff?
  2. If so, did that breach cause her injury?
  3. If so, what damages should be awarded?

Breach of duty of care

The plaintiff alleged three instances where the defendant breached its duty of care to her, namely:

Failing to prevent the incident – the plaintiff claimed that Anglicare could have refused the placement; provided a second carer or ensured that the plaintiff was adequately trained in caring for the young person. In dismissing each instance, Kingham DCJ stated, respectively:

[23] Anglicare is funded by the Department to provide such services. It is reasonable to assume some impact on relations between Anglicare and the Department if Anglicare refused to take a funded placement in an approved facility which has capacity to take on the young person.

[30] 16 days prior to the incident, the young person’s conduct was consistent with his profile and was being adequately managed in the house. The shift reports do not warn of an escalation in threatening or violent conduct. They do not provide a cogent basis for seeking funding from the Department for a second carer.

[36] [I]t [was not] established that Ms Greenway would have handled the situation differently if she had received further training. Rather, the evidence shows that Ms Greenway drew upon her training to competently de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation, even while she felt scared and threatened.
Failing to adequately respond after either telephone call – the plaintiff claimed that due to the lack of attention to her welfare, lack of support and that she was not relieved from her shift, the response from Anglicare was inadequate. Kingham DCJ found that it was reasonable for the supervisor to wait before responding to the first call, however, found that a reasonable employer in Anglicare’s position would have trained on call team leaders in how to assess a worker’s welfare after a crisis (i.e. after the second call). Her Honour said:

[58] Mr Mafulu was on call for the purpose of supporting a carer looking after a young person in that house alone. He had no relevant qualifications. Without adequate guidance and proper training, he could not be expected to assess, whether by phone or in person, whether a staff member should be relieved from their duties after a traumatic incident.

[61] Mr Mafulu was not adequately equipped by Anglicare to fulfil that responsibility and, in this case, his response to the situation was inadequate.

Did Anglicare’s breach of duty cause her injury?

While it was common ground that the incident itself was a contributor to the plaintiff’s injury, it was also claimed that having to stay overnight with the young person and being let down by the support added to the injury. Finding causation, Kingham DCJ said in this regard:

[] The question of causation is a legal not a medical enquiry, but, in this case, it is informed by the evidence of the psychiatrists called by the parties.

[] … [S]taying in the house with the young person overnight and without support added an additional level of anxiety and this “would be seen as a contributing factor” to the injury. Although Ms Greenway’s feelings were connected to Mr Mafulu’s response on the night, it is the ongoing exposure to the potential of further harm which contributed to her injury.

Damages were assessed as follows:

Head of damage Amount
General damages $52,600.00
Past economic loss $108,720.00
Past superannuation $10,057.00
Fox v Wood $6,006.00
Interest $3,000.00
Future economic loss $292,000.00
Future superannuation $31,120.00
Past special damages $14,000.00
Future out of pocket $21,100.00
GROSS TOTAL $539,603.00
Less WorkCover refund $84,667.32
CLEAR TOTAL $454,935.68

 

David Cormack – Brisbane Barrister & Mediator

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