Psychiatric injury at work – Victorian teacher successful against employer

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In judgment delivered earlier this month, Doulis v State of Victoria [2014] VSC 395, Mr Doulis, now 48, was successful with claiming common law damages for a psychiatric injury at work. He claimed for a major depressive illness suffered during his employment at a state school around 2003, some 11 years ago.

He alleged that the school caused his psychiatric injury at work by failing to alleviate his onerous teaching load, a large proportion of which was ‘foundation’ and ‘low’ level classes in a school with a system of ‘homogeneous classes’.

The Supreme Court of Victoria found in favour of the plaintiff despite finding him an unimpressive witness.

Importantly, the Trial Judge found that around September 2003, Mr Doulis was involved in a meeting with two assistant principals which was attended, at least in part, by the principal.  During that meeting Mr Doulis indicated that he was having difficulty coping with the proportion of his teaching load, which were of low, and foundation level classes.   The Court accepted evidence from a memo sent from the principal’s office and fellow teachers that low level and foundation level students were in fact difficult to manage and often had ‘negative attitudes’.

The Court also found that despite the meeting and the school’s directive that he take some time off work to recover, they did not change his teaching load for the remainder of 2003 and continued to require him to teach low and foundation level classes in 2004.

Mr Doulis consulted a psychologist and was diagnosed with depression.  He was absent the following week.  Yet, the assistant Principal made no changes to his allocations.  Later in the year, Mr Doulis applied for changes in 2004 allocations, however, did not receive any substantial changes.

In those circumstances, the Court, following the principles in the High Court decision of Koehler, where a sales representative failed on appeal to establish that the employer breached its duty owed to her (“causing” psychiatric injury), held that the school owed Mr Doulis a duty, given they had been informed of his risk of suffering injury in September 2003.  It further held that the school breached that duty by failing to take reasonable steps to adjust his timetable upon his return to work and in 2004 leading up to his departure.

In assessing damages, the Court considered Mr Doulis would have continued a career as a teacher in Victoria until the age of 67 but adopted higher discounting for contingencies to reflect that at the time of the school’s breach, Mr Doulis had already suffered from a depressive illness.

The Court also awarded common law damages for pain and suffering to the order of $300,000.

Implications of the Decision regarding Psychiatric Injury at Work

The decision has practical implications:-

For employees

  1. The decision affirms that in order for claims for psychiatric injury against an employer to be successful, it is not sufficient to show that you are experiencing mere work stress and an overworked load.
  2. Employers whilst being required to prevent foreseeable risks of injury, do not breach a duty simply by requiring the performance of a contract of employment.
  3. In Queensland, the time frame to commence proceedings is 3 years from the date of a cause of action arises.  Therefore, in a case such as this where the events occur some 10 years earlier, unless pre-court procedure are instituted early, it may be difficult to maintain such a claim.
  4. As in Victoria (where the injury must be ‘serious’), there are rules governing access to common law rights in Queensland.  Since October 2013, workers must receive an assessment of a DPI greater than 5% (i.e 5.5% and above) to be entitled to seek common law damages.
  5. As in this case, the importance of supporting documentary evidence and oral evidence from colleagues and the school are paramount.

For Schools

  1. When dividing into classes, schools with homogenous ‘streaming’ should consider the occupational and health impact of the resultant class so as to identify any risk of bad classroom behaviour, the level of stress on the teacher in charge and whether the teacher has the requisite experience or training required to management that environment.
  2. When giving consideration to teacher’s class allocations, senior management and department heads should consider a balanced spread of classes with respect to the students’ likely behaviour, ability and actual achievement.
  3. Principals and Assistant Principals, in particular those with timetable setting responsibilities, should take indications of distress seriously and take steps to examine the underlying cause of a particular teacher’s complaint.
  4. It if can be reasonably established that a particular classroom dynamic is the underlying cause, the school may be required to make material changes to the constitution of that class, assist with disciplinary enforcement, consider relief for the teacher and provide support generally.
  5. Whilst difficult, schools may need to have some degree of flexibility when setting timetables and class allocations.

In summary, despite widespread media reports, our analysis is that the established principles of the law of negligence in Queensland, combined with the practical difference between the access-to-common-law rules in the two States, the operation of the Statute of Limitations and the legislative cap on damages will mean that this decision adds little to the existing line of authority.

Suffered psychiatric injury at work or dealing with injury in a school

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