Robyn Eaton was engaged as an administration assistant for nursing home giant, TriCare. She brought a claim against TriCare for psychiatric injury she sustained as a result of being placed under unreasonable workloads and stress due to lack of proper management in her work duties, and bullying and harassment she experienced on a regular basis at the hands of her supervisor and manager in the course of her work with the TriCare organisation.
After failing at first instance on her claim in the District Court, because the Judge did not consider her psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable, Eaton finally won her battle to achieve damages of $436,000 in the Court of Appeal in Brisbane.
Worker claims excessive workload and bullying
In 2007, Ms Eaton commenced work for TriCare at its Point Vernon Centre in Hervey Bay as the administrative assistant to the Centre’s Manager. The role involved undertaking payroll, staff rostering and liaising with patients and their relatives. Although Ms Eaton had experience working in nursing home administration, having worked in various public and private hospitals and retirement centres since the early 1970s, even working for TriCare at one time in 2002, she had no experience in her new duties.
Initially Ms Eaton was working under the Centre’s manager, Kym Pointon. However, despite having a good relationship with her manager, she claimed that she was placed under an unreasonable amount of stress and pressure due to the frequent absence of Ms Pointon at the Centre, which often left her floundering on her own in a role she was ill equipped for and resulted in her having to work long hours, up to 50 per week, to get the work done.
Pointon left her role as Manager at the Point Vernon Home at the end of 2008. Eaton claimed this caused further increased work hours and stress, as she was left to do the work on her own and without any proper supervision until a new manager was installed at the Home.
Indeed, during the period the Home was lacking a manager, Eaton testified that she was left to deal alone with an “unannounced accreditation visit” at the Home, which was well outside Eaton’s experience or training to deal with. The Home subsequently failed the random accreditation visit quite spectacularly, falling short on 17 of the 44 relevant criteria being audited.
Jane Harrison was then employed at the Home as the new Manager, and faced with bringing the Point Vernon Centre up to appropriate standards. Harrison was a former Navy officer and carried an MBA from Queensland University. She also had an impressive history of working in various public and private sector health care administration roles.
During an eight day trial in the District Court at Brisbane, evidence was given that Harrison approached her role at the TriCare facility in a military or authoritarian type fashion, which frequently involved aggressive behaviour including screaming at Eaton, pointing her finger at her in a threatening manner, threatening or aggressive body language, and a patronising tone toward Eaton.
Eaton testified that when she approached Harrison about her long work hours and increasing workload, as well as her aggressive behaviour toward her, Harrison refused to provide any assistance but instead screamed the response: “I will speak however I like, Get over yourself. No one likes you anyway”.
Court hears evidence of tremors and tears in the workplace
Evidence was given at the trial by other employees at the Home of the aggressive attitude of the Manager in her approach to her subordinates, and that Eaton had been seen to be suffering from tremors and was often teary whilst undertaking her work at the Home under the supervision of Harrison. Some staff gave evidence that Eaton had gone from being a very happy, outgoing, bright and bubbly person to a shaking and teary mess. Even Harrison testified she had witnessed the Plaintiff, Eaton, shaking and crying at work.
Psychiatric evidence at the trial was that Eaton had sustained such a serious psychiatric injury from her work at the Home, that it was unlikely she would be able to undertake any form of employment in the future.
Trial Judge accepts work caused psychiatric injury, but says it was not reasonably foreseeable
After the District Court eight day hearing, His Honour, Judge Brian Devereaux, primarily accepted Eaton’s complaints, and that they were the cause of her psychiatric illness that would prevent her from ever working again. However, despite this, he dismissed Eaton’s claim on the basis that it was not reasonably foreseeable to the employer that Eaton was likely to suffer a psychiatric injury as a result of the workload and conditions of which she complained.
The matter went to appeal before the Supreme Court in Brisbane. On appeal, the Appeal Court noted in particular the evidence of the change in personality and evident vulnerability of Eaton witnessed by other staff, including Harrison, her Manager.
The Court also considered that as Eaton’s employment contract did not require her to work on the basis of task performance, requiring Eaton to work outside standard hours did constitute an “excessive workload”.
In considering the primary question of foreseeability, the Appeal judges determined that the increased workload and antics of Harrison did not, on their own, make any psychiatric injury reasonably foreseeable. However, the Court accepted that the high work demands on Eaton, and the Manager’s refusal to reduce same, added to Eaton’s vulnerability as it made it harder for her to cope with the bullying and harassing behaviour of Harrison.
Appeal Court says conflict at work entirely acceptable, but bullying is not
In giving his reasons for the Appeal Court, Justice Phillip McMurdo said that an employer has no “legal responsibility to provide a happy workplace or one in which productivity might be enhanced by temperate and polite behaviour from management,” and “the relevant duty is to take reasonable care to avoid the risk of psychiatric injury where she was exhibiting a particular vulnerability.”
In other words, whilst some conflict between staff is entirely acceptable, Harrison’s behaviour in this case was not.
Manifest vulnerability made psychiatric injury reasonably foreseeable says Court of Appeal
On the point of foreseeability, the Appeal Court held that it is “now well known that although not everyone who is exposed to stress develops an illness, it can do so in some cases” and Eaton’s “manifest psychological state made the risk of that occurrence reasonably foreseeable and Ms Harrison ought to have foreseen it”.
Having determined liability in favour of the Plaintiff/ Appellant, Eaton, the Appeal Court then assessed 61-yr-old Eaton’s award of compensation damages in the sum of $436,000, as assessed by the trial judge.
To read the full decision of Eaton v TriCare (Country) Pty Ltd  QCA 139 handed down on 3 June 2016 in the Supreme Court at Brisbane, click here.
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