Traumatising Incident (Workplace) – Employer’s Response Inadequate
5th Oct 2016
Worker Left to Care for Assailant after Traumatising Incident in the Workplace—Employer’s Response Inadequate
Greenway v The Corporation of the Synod of the Diocese of Brisbane  QDC 195
The District Court has awarded more than $450,000.00 to a young woman who developed post-traumatic stress disorder during the course of her employment as a residential carer for wayward youths.
The plaintiff, 32-year-old Rachel Greenway, was the sole carer on duty on 25 August 2013. She was tasked with caring for a 15-year-old resident who had been identified as having complex support needs. The resident had a history of threatening behaviour and violent conduct and had previously assaulted another residential worker.
At about 7pm, the resident became verbally and physically abusive towards Ms Greenway. He kicked and broke a window and then threatened Ms Greenway with a large shard of glass. He also threatened self-harm.
Ms Greenway de-escalated the situation, disarmed the resident and reported the incident to the night duty manager. She was required to remain alone in the residence with her assailant for the remainder of the night and until conclusion of her shift more than 12 hours later.
Following the events of 25 August 2013, Ms Greenway decompensated.
Issues for Determination
The employer denied that it had breached its duty of care to Ms Greenway or alternatively that any breach was causative of her condition.
Breach of Duty
Ms Greenway alleged the employer breached its duty by either failing to prevent the incident or failing to properly respond to it.
Kingham DCJ was not satisfied Anglicare was negligent for failing to prevent the incident occurring either through refusing the placement of the troublesome resident, requiring a second carer to be on duty or providing additional training to Ms Greenway to deal with these kind of incidents. Its decisions in respect of each of those issues, were found to be reasonable in all of the circumstances.
Kingham DCJ found that the failing of the employer was the way it handled the incident when reported by Ms Greenway.
Ms Greenway alleged there was no adequate check on her welfare by her employer. Despite having two conversations with Ms Greenway on the evening of the incident her team leader did not offer to relieve her, visit the residence or send another worker to support her.
The judge held a reasonable employer in Anglicare’s position would have established guidelines for team leaders to support employees who were caring for children with complex or extreme support needs. A reasonable employer would have also trained team leaders in how to assess an employee’s welfare in the aftermath of a crisis.
Had that training and guidance been received, the team leader’s response to this incident would have likely been very different.
Having determined that the employer could not reasonably be expected to have avoided the incident, the question of causation turned on whether the inadequate response to the incident, that is requiring Ms Greenway to stay alone with the assailant overnight without any support and without having undertaken any adequate check on her welfare, was a necessary condition for the occurrence of her injury.
The question of causation was informed by the medical evidence of the psychiatrists.
It was common ground that the traumatic incident itself was a major contributor to the occurrence of Ms Greenway’s injury.
However, the psychiatrists agreed that Ms Greenway’s actions in the immediate aftermath in de-escalating and disarming the resident were evidence of the fact that she had not been so overwhelmed by the incident itself that it was inevitable that she would develop PTSD in response to the incident. They also agreed that staying overnight in the residence with her assailant without support added an additional level of anxiety which would be a contributing factor to the development of PTSD.
That evidence allowed the Court to reach the conclusion that it was more probable than not that Anglicare’s breach of duty was a necessary condition for the development of Ms Greenway’s injury.
This decision highlights that a plaintiff who is assaulted in the course of employment does not need to prove that the assault itself could have been prevented by reasonable care on the part of the employer to succeed.
Particularly in the case of employees in ‘front line’ occupations where they are inevitably going to be exposed to some degree of trauma, the enquiry must extend to the actions taken by the employer in managing that trauma.
If the employer’s actions fail to properly address and attempt to reduce the impact of that trauma on the employee, it may be sufficient to show that those actions were negligent.
Sarah Dreger is a Senior Lawyer at Gouldson Legal, a Queensland personal injury plaintiff litigation firm. Sarah has practised exclusively in personal injury matters since her admission in 2011 and recently achieved her Personal Injuries Specialist Accreditation. Sarah’s pro-active and practical approach to her work helps ensure the best possible outcome for her clients.
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).