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Distressed Ambulance Officer fails in claim

Mr James was employed as a Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS) officer based in Doomadgee in North Queensland.

He brought a claim for personal injuries against the State of Queensland alleging he had sustained psychological injuries in the course of his work duties.

The claim centred on a number of incidents occurring in a six-week period, including attendances on a teenage boy who had been gruesomely mauled by dogs and who later died in hospital, and on two girls, aged six and three, who had been raped.

During this period, Mr James’ psychological health declined. He ceased work soon after and did not return to any form of employment for over a decade.

The claim was heard in the Supreme Court at Cairns by Henry J who appeared to take a dim view of Mr James’ credibility. The Court accepted that the attendances referred to could be highly upsetting to any ambulance officer but found that Mr James had frequently changed details of his account regarding what steps he took to seek help, in order to “mould” and strengthen his case.

Mr James’ main argument was that the QAS was obliged to ensure he received support, rather than leaving the choice up to him.

The QAS had in place a program for supporting the mental well-being of its staff, called “Priority One”. The four core support services in the program were peer support, self-referral counselling, a telephone counselling service and critical incident stress debriefing. All staff were trained in what the program had to offer.

Mr James alleged he should have been offered the chance to attend a critical incident stress debriefing, however the Court examined the program manual in detail which clearly stated that this type of debriefing was for a group of people rather than an individual.

Mr James did speak to various peers and managers about his experiences however their evidence was that he said he was coping fairly well and had rejected any assistance, including being relieved from working at Doomadgee, and having appointments arranged for him to attend a counsellor and psychologist. This showed Mr James was well aware he had a problem, and knew of the services on offer, but declined to make use of them.

Mr James contended it should have been mandatory for him to access services such as counselling but this was rejected by the Court which noted the employer’s duty was to “take reasonable care, not invasive or dictatorial care”.

The Court received evidence about a past QAS pilot study in which counselling was mandated after every incident which had met certain criteria. The pilot study was not successful as ambulance workers came to resent the constant intrusions on their autonomy and privacy and this in turn had a detrimental effect on the ability of “peer supporters” to provide support. The QAS concluded that self-referral was a better system overall. The Court was impressed by the considered and methodical approach taken by the QAS and found its conclusion on this issue to be reasonable.

Mr James’ claim was dismissed as he failed to prove a breach of duty of care by the QAS.

This case demonstrates that where a risk of mental harm is inherent in particular work duties, an employer needs to have in place a well-thought out system for offering appropriate support. If the employer can convince the Court the program was appropriate and reasonable, and was correctly followed, there is a good chance it will be found to have discharged its duty to take reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ mental health.

This article was written by Daniel Sullivan, Associate, and Cameron Seymour, Partner.

"The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication."