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Court orders $435,000 damages for workplace bullying in nursing home

Newsletter 21 September 2016

In a recent Supreme Court of Queensland Court of Appeal decision a nursing home employee was awarded more than $435,000 damages for psychiatric injury caused by workplace bullying.

The plaintiff had been employed as an administrative assistant for three years between 2007 and 2010. By the time she resigned from her employment she had developed a psychiatric illness, suffering from depression and anxiety. The trial judge found that her condition was caused by her consistently excessive workload and the conduct of a fellow employee, who was the manager of the nursing home.

The Court found that the manager had regularly conducted herself in an unreasonable manner towards the plaintiff; on occasions had spoken to her in a style she found aggressive and upsetting; and had repeatedly acted in a belittling and harassing way towards the plaintiff. The plaintiff was subjected to personal abuse from the manager, often in the presence of other employees.

Bullying exacerbated by excessive workload

The harmful nature of the manager’s conduct had been exacerbated by the plaintiff’s excessive workload, which was of relevance because the burden of the workload made it more difficult for her to cope with the harassing and belittling behaviour of the manager. The failure of the manager to effectively reduce the plaintiff’s workload contributed to her sense of grievance and distress, and the excessive workload contributed to the stress caused by the manager’s conduct.

Employer has a non-delegable duty of care

The Court held that the owner of the nursing home owed a non-delegable duty of care to its employees to take reasonable care to avoid exposing them to unnecessary risks of injury.

The plaintiff had been exhibiting symptoms of stress in the workplace, and there was a real likelihood of causing such stress to the plaintiff that in her vulnerable condition she would develop a psychiatric illness. Under the circumstances the risk of psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable, and the employer had a duty to take reasonable care to avoid the risk in the circumstance that the plaintiff was exhibiting a particular vulnerability. Reasonable care required that the manager not behave towards the plaintiff in a harassing and belittling fashion.

The manager’s conduct was held to constitute a breach of the employer’s duty of care.  The Court held that the conduct, in the context of the plaintiff’s excessive workload, caused the development of her psychiatric illness.

The Court ordered the respondent employer to pay to the plaintiff $435,583.98 in damages.

(Eaton v TriCare (Country) Pty Ltd [2016] QCA 139)

Rod Felmingham, Solicitor

Newsletter 21 September 2016
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