Maureen Robertson (the Plaintiff) was an endorsed enrolled nurse working at the Gold Coast Hospital. She alleged she suffered a psychiatric injury over a period of time in the course of her employment, and was "badgered, bullied and mobbed" by her colleagues at work.
The Plaintiff sued her employer for damages.
The Plaintiff's case was heard by the District Court of Queensland. The trial judge dismissed the claim on the basis she was not bullied, badgered or mobbed as alleged. Rather, the actions of the employer were simply a reasonable investigation into the Plaintiff's competency. It then flowed there had been no foreseeable psychiatric injury, and no breach of any duty of care.
The Plaintiff appealed against the trial judge's decision.
The Court of Appeal found:
During the trial, the Plaintiff alleged her "signs" were (a) her demonstrated lack of confidence in administering medications, (b) the employer's knowledge she felt unfairly targeted by other staff, and (c) telling her superiors she felt lonely because she did not feel supported by other nursing staff. The Plaintiff also said she would have been showing "physical signs" of nervousness at various meetings with her superiors.
The trial judge found that, although it would have been clear the Plaintiff was feeling unhappy, stressed, and lacking confidence, that knowledge would have only given rise to "a need to provide education in medication that would increase her confidence…". It would not have been significant enough to give rise to a foreseeable risk of injury.
The Court of Appeal found no error with the trial judge's conclusions that no "signs" of foreseeable psychiatric injury were exhibited by the Plaintiff.
The Court therefore dismissed the Plaintiff's appeal.
The Court turned to the principles set out in the High Court decision of Koehler v Cerebros (Australia) Ltd (2005) 222 CLR 44, which is the leading authority with respect to cases of pure psychiatric injury suffered in the workplace. The relevant principle is:
"The duty of care is engaged if psychiatric injury to the particular employee is reasonably foreseeable… That invites attention to the nature and extent of the work being done by the particular employee, and the signs given by the employee concerned."
The trial decision on this case, and the decision on appeal, demonstrates the circumstances in which a Court will (or will not) find an employer liable for psychiatric injury. In particular, a Court will pay close attention to whether the affected employee exhibits signs of possible psychiatric decompensation, which go beyond that caused by mere stresses in the workplace. As set out in Koehler, an "employer engaging an employee to perform stated duties is entitled to assume, in the absence of evident signs warning of the possibility of psychiatric injury, that the employee considers that he or she is able to do the job."
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