Bullied nurse wins $1.4m
18th Oct 2017
The case of Robinson v State of Queensland  QSC 165 made headlines when the plaintiff, a registered nurse with Queensland Health, was awarded $1.4 million in her lawsuit against the Queensland Government.
59-year-old Mary-Rose Robinson was the District Director of Nursing for the Cape York Health Service.
Ms Turner, the Cape York Health Service District CEO, was held to be primarily responsible for the managerial misconduct that led to Ms Robinson’s psychiatric injury. The Queensland Government was held to be vicariously liable for Ms Turner’s actions and lack of action.
Ms Robinson had acted as CEO prior to Ms Turner’s appointment, and had overseen tensions between and mediation of two Weipa Hospital staff, Ms Holmes and Ms Holford.
Reports from an external consultant, PsyCare, recommended that Ms Holmes be placed on leave pending a psychiatric medical assessment and separated from the workforce, and that formal performance management and disciplinary processes be undertaken.
Ms Robinson’s handover meeting with Ms Turner included an explanation of the recent tensions and the external mediation.
During this meeting, Ms Robinson advised that she was vulnerable, because of the behaviours of the other staff members. Effectively, Ms Turner was put on notice of Ms Robinson’s vulnerable state as well as the troubling staff members and her concerns in this respect.
It's important to note that, apart from a period of separation in a more administrative role, Ms Turner did not implement the recommendations provided by PsyCare. She appeared to give this report, which outlined Ms Holmes as highly manipulative and vexatious, little weight.
When Ms Holmes returned from leave, she submitted a number of workplace incident forms (WIFs), comprising unfounded and vexatious complaints targeting Ms Robinson. The WIFs were not addressed for an unreasonable length of time and were not supplied to Ms Robinson. Some were verbally dismissed by Ms Turner and a number were recommended for further review.
The lack of access to the WIFs and their obvious, vicious targeting of Ms Robinson was very distressing for the plaintiff. The lack of resolution here was a key factor in the concerns she expressed to Ms Turner.
Ms Robinson’s concerns were compounded by the lack of support and lack of action (primarily) by Ms Turner. There were also a number of instances where Ms Turner undermined and humiliated Ms Robinson.
These included a number of meetings where Ms Turner was outwardly rude and hostile in her treatment of Ms Robinson; removing her from meetings without explanation; or overruling Ms Robinson, all while in the presence of other staff members.
As a result of this treatment by Ms Turner, including the lack of management of the issues regarding Ms Holmes, Ms Robinson developed a psychiatric injury and consequently suffered the loss of her career.
It is significant that despite personal stressors, Ms Robinson, through examination of her role and past work history, was established to be competent and well-regarded in her role at the time, with no previous history of psychological or psychiatric problems.
Ms Robinson made efforts to return to work but requested that this be in a similar role elsewhere, such as Townsville. Unfortunately, her employer made it clear that only her existing placement at Weipa was available. The thought of returning to this situation, where Ms Holmes and Ms Turner still resided, further compounded the issues Ms Robinson was facing and her eventual inability to ever return to employment.
ISSUES FOR DETERMINATION
The employer denied that it had breached its duty of care to Ms Robinson or that any breach was causative of her condition and, consequently at trial, liability and quantum issues were both in dispute.
BREACH OF DUTY
When examining the relevant breach, Henry J outlined that the relevant duty of care was not confined, per se, to a duty to investigate. Rather, it was a duty to take timely and determinative action.
It was determined that the defendant had breached its duty of care to Ms Robinson by failing to take timely and determinative action in response to the WIFs, which manifested in its failure to provide copies of the WIFs to Ms Robinson in a timely fashion.
During proceedings Ms Turner acknowledged that it was within her power to determine that the complaints in the WIFs required no investigation because they were vexatious. Such determination and dismissal of the WIFs would have met the duty of care obligations required of the employer. Further, it was within the CEO’s power to ensure a timely investigation of the complaints outlined within the WIFs. No investigation – let alone a timely one – occurred.
Henry J went on to outline that the risk of psychiatric injury to Ms Robinson was reasonable and evident in her presentation of high and increasing emotional concern and distress about Ms Holmes’ targeted complaints against her. It was held that the risk of such an injury was not insignificant.
The risk of injury emanated in part from the WIFs which maliciously targeted Ms Robinson, but it was the response of the defendant upon receiving the complaints that was found to be most material to the probability of a psychiatric injury.
Henry J found that the defendant breached its duty of care to avoid psychiatric injury by failing to take timely and determinative action on complaints in the WIFs, and that the substantial cause was the conduct – primarily by omission – of Ms Turner, for which the defendant was vicariously liable.
Further to this, the defendant breached its duty to avoid psychiatric injury by failing to prevent managerial mistreatment by Ms Turner – for which the defendant was also vicariously liable.
If the defendant had not breached its duty of care and dealt with the WIFs in a timely and determinative way, the source of the plaintiff’s heightened level of emotional distress would have been removed.
Unfortunately, Ms Robinson’s heightened distress was perpetuated by the lack of action on the WIFs, and the ongoing failure to take timely and determinative action on same. Quite sadly, Ms Robinson’s emotional state was pushed even further by Ms Turner’s managerial mistreatment of her.
Thus, Ms Robinson was awarded damages in the sum of $1,468,991.11.
Faran Gouldson is the sole Director of Gouldson Legal, a Queensland personal injury plaintiff litigation firm which commenced in late 1998. He has over 20 years’ experience in Queensland personal injury law and understands the challenges that clients face when approaching compensation claims. Faran has worked with thousands of injured Queenslanders in his time and now specialises predominately in especially complex and catastrophic claims.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).