Preventing Psychological Harm

The recent District Court of Queensland decision of Greenway v The Corporation of the Synod of the Diocese of Brisbane [2016] QDC 195 demonstrates the need for employers to provide adequate support to employees who have been exposed to traumatic incidents. This includes, where necessary, updating policies and procedures to prevent psychological harm.

Ms Greenway (“the plaintiff”) was assaulted and threatened with a shard of glass by a “complex support needs” youth on her shift at a residence run by Anglicare. Her Team Leader failed to send any assistance, and Ms Greenway had to remain with the youth alone until her shift ended the next afternoon. As a result, Ms Greenway suffered a psychological injury in the form of PTSD, of which her employer had to pay $454,935.68 in damages.

The Facts

Ms Greenway was employed by The Corporation of the Synod of the Diocese of Brisbane (“the Defendant”) as a carer in a residence trading under the name of Anglicare. On 25 August 2013, Ms Greenway was caring for a 15 year old boy who had been assessed by the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services as having complex support needs. The young person was also on bail.

At approximately 7pm, the young person became abusive and aggressive towards Ms Greenway after she refused to drive him to see a friend. The youth then entered the staffroom and called the Team Leader, Mr Mafulu. Ms Greenway found the youth and he threw the phone at her, before pushing past Ms Greenway to find the car keys to her car. Mr Mafulu could hear the commotion in the background and knew that the young person was in the staffroom, which was supposed to be a “secure area”.

After telling Mr Mafulu she would call him back, Ms Greenway followed the youth into his bedroom. The youth then began “swearing at her, started hyperventilating and said he was going to kill himself and jump through the window”. He then kicked in a window and retrieved a shard of glass and threatened her with it.

Though Ms Greenway disarmed the youth and calmed him down, she called Mr Mafulu back and retold him the incident. Mr Mafulu told Ms Greenway there was no need to send assistance because Ms Greenway had de-escalated the situation, “she had to establish her authority in the house; and that there was no need to call the police.”  She was left to remain with the youth alone in the house until she had finished her shift the next day.

Ms Greenway noted that she positioned herself in her room the whole night facing the door and not sleeping, frightened that the youth would assault her once more or follow through on his threats.

Ms Greenway brought an action against the Defendant, claiming that it had failed in its duty of care to provide a safe environment, which consequently resulted in her suffering from PTSD.

The Issues

Did the Defendant breach its duty of care to Ms Greenway, and did this breach result in Ms Greenway’s psychological injury?

Held

Kingham DCJ held that the Defendant had breached its duty and that this did result in Ms Greenway’s injuries. As a result, the Defendant was required to pay $454,935.68 in damages.

Reasons

The Defendant breached its duty of care by failing to respond appropriately to the second call

While the Court rejected submissions that the Defendant had failed in its duty to prevent the incident – it was unreasonable to expect Anglicare to reject the placement, provide a second worker to care for the young person, and Ms Greenway had been adequately trained to deal with such an incident – the Court did find that Anglicare had breached its duty by failing to respond appropriately to Ms Greenway’s second call.

Kingham DCJ held that the sole enquiry of Mr Mafulu asking if Ms Greenway was “okay?” was inadequate. At 55, he stated,

“Acting only on a brief response to a single enquiry in those circumstances placed inordinate responsibility on an employee who had just experienced a traumatic incident. There were other options open to him. He could have called the Police, visited the house himself or [sent] another worker to check on her and assist.”

Kingham DCJ, however, described this as a failure in training by Anglicare. The purpose of calling the Team Leader was for the Team Leader to assess the welfare of the employee. His Honour noted, however, that Mr Mafulu “had no relevant qualifications. Without adequate guidance and proper training, he could not be expected to assess, whether by phone or in person, whether a staff member should be relieved from their duties after a traumatic incident.”

Ultimately, the Defendant had failed in its duty by not providing adequate training to Team Leaders whose duties were to assess the welfare of workers in the aftermath of crisis, “considering emotional and psychological issues as well as physical safety.”

Did the Defendant’s breach cause Ms Greenway’s injuries?

His Honour noted that if Mr Mafulu had been adequately trained, he would have asked Ms Greenway a series of “prompting questions and drawn on his observations” and sent additional staff members to support her. “He would not have relied solely on the self-assessment of a person who had so recently been through a traumatic incident.”

Instead, Ms Greenway was left in the house alone, an inAngcident which medical experts agreed was “frightening enough to have cause PTSD in the average person.” Anglicare’s breach of duty of care, therefore, was a necessary condition of Ms Greenway’s harm.

Lessons

Greenway highlights the duty of care that employers owe to employees to protect not only an employee’s physical, but psychological well-being. In particular, it is essential that employers develop policies and procedures to respond to an employee who has experienced crisis and provide adequate support.

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