The District Court of Queensland has recently awarded damages in the sum of $148,114.85, clear of the statutory refund, to a corrections officer that was assaulted by a colleague and subject to abuse from other colleagues following the assault.

Background

The Plaintiff was employed as a Custodial Corrections Officer (‘CCO’) by Queensland Corrective Services (‘QCS’) at the Woodford Correctional Centre, employed as so from in or around August 2014.

On 22 January 2017, the Plaintiff was assaulted by his direct supervisor, Mr Walker, in the context of a disagreement about a prisoner. As described the Plaintiff, his supervisor “punched [him] in the guts”. The assault occurred in front of other colleagues, with Mr Walker cautioning these colleagues that they would also be assaulted if they challenged him.

The Plaintiff had a number of scheduled days off thereafter and upon his return, was approached by his section manager, Mr Mosley, who requested that the Plaintiff provide a report about the incident. The Plaintiff provided the requested report and thereafter, the Plaintiff began to be subject to what the court described as reprisals from colleagues and Mr Walker, including being called derogatory terms and a ‘dobber’.

On 14 and 15 February 2017, the Plaintiff was rostered on a post with Mr Walker. On 15 February, the Plaintiff contacted the acting operations supervisor of the facility, advising her that he did not feel comfortable working with Mr Walker. He was redeployed to another part of the jail. Later that day, he was approached by Mr Mosley and spoken to about the redeployment and offered the services of the Employee Assistance Program at the facility.

Over the subsequent weeks, the Plaintiff continued to be approached by colleagues and asked why he’d ‘dobbed’ on Mr Walker. On 2 March 2017, the Plaintiff spoke with Mr Mosley, allegedly reporting the name calling and abuse to him and raising issue with the way in which the assault had been dealt with.

On 9 March 2017, the Plaintiff attended upon his General Practitioner, who opined that he required time off work. A claim for workers’ compensation was then made, with the Plaintiff not returning to his employment at Woodford Correctional Centre. The Plaintiff’s claim for workers’ compensation was made in respect of a psychological injury, initiated by the assault and contributed to by the events at work which occurred thereafter.

Position of the Parties – Liability

The Plaintiff pleaded that, as at 1 February 2017 there existed a foreseeable risk of the Plaintiff sustaining a psychiatric injury, of which the Defendant was or ought to have been aware by its servant Mosely. In the alternative, it was pleaded that this foreseeable risk arose either on 13 or 15 February 2017. The Plaintiff pleaded that his employer’s non-delegable duty of care required it to take a number of steps, including not limited to: –

  1. Train, instruct, and/or discipline the supervisor that violence or threatening behaviour in the workplace would not be tolerated;
  2. Take steps to investigate the incident;
  3. Provide the Plaintiff with support in his employment;
  4. Provide all employees with appropriate training and education on the issue of appropriate conduct within the workplace, as well as the foreseeable risks of psychiatric injury from unacceptable conduct and to enforce such training;
  5. Avoid exposing the Plaintiff to employee behaviours and workplace circumstances which created a foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury; and
  6. Take all reasonable steps to ensure that supervisors responsible for supervising the Plaintiff follow policies and procedures in place with respect to his employment including investigating complaints.

In denying the Plaintiff’s allegations, the Defendant pleaded, amongst other things: –

  1. That any act of violence or threatening behaviour involved a criminal act that was not foreseeable, and as such, a reasonable person in the position of the defendant was not required to take any precaution to train or instruct employees not to commit a criminal act;
  2. That it had trained and instructed all employees in relation to its Code of Conduct for the Queensland Public Service and the Department’s Workplace Policy;
  3. That its conduct following the incident was appropriate as they requested statements from the Plaintiff, Mr Walker, and witnesses, as well as referred the incident to the Corrective Services Investigation Unit and the Ethical Standards Unit. The Defendant further relied upon its subsequent suspension of Mr Walker on 24 July 2017.
  4. That it had made support services available to the Plaintiff following the incident, namely, the Employee Assistance Program.

Decision

The Court held that the Defendant was vicariously liable for the conduct of Mr Walker, opining that the assault was a “wrongful form of management of a subordinate by a supervisor in the exercise of the authority vested in that supervisor by the employer.” The Court further held that the Defendants failures to earlier separate the Plaintiff from ongoing contact with Mr Walker, and to provide earlier support mechanisms to protect him from reprisal, amounted to further breaches of the non-delegable duty it owed the Plaintiff.

The Plaintiff was awarded the total sum of $148,114.85, clear of a statutory refund of $59,723.20. The Plaintiff was awarded $124,589.77 and $48,450.00 for past and future economic loss respectively, and $8,630.00 for general damages. Further awards were made for past and future special damages, interest on past economic loss, and past and future loss of superannuation.

Like? Share it with your friends.