The Victorian Supreme Court has recently considered the extent of an employer’s duty of care to safeguard employees from the risk of a third-party criminal act, finding in favour of an outreach worker whom was allegedly assaulted by a client’s ex-husband. 

Facts

The Plaintiff, Ms. Tracey Lee Bell, was employed as a family violence outreach worker by the Defendant, Nexus Primary Health. In this role, the Plaintiff assisted clients who were victims of domestic violence.  

In October 2011, the Plaintiff was informed by a client her husband had violently assaulted her, and that during the assault her husband had threatened to kill the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff subsequently reported these threats to her supervisor. The court found that thereafter, the Plaintiff’s client’s husband’s anger and animosity in respect of the Plaintiff intensified in late 2012 and January 2013.  

On 27 March 2013, the Plaintiff was attacked when getting out of her car outside the surgery of her general practitioner in Broadford (‘the assault’). She had stopped to pick up a script on her way to the Defendant’s premises, which were short distance away. After the incident, the Plaintiff suffered a series of further distressing events, including multiple threatening letters delivered to her home, and the throwing of a brick through the window of her home.  

The Plaintiff was subsequently diagnosed as suffering a post-traumatic stress disorder referrable to the assault. The Plaintiff brought a claim for damages against the Defendant.  

Position of the Parties at Trial

The Plaintiff contended that: –  

a. It was more likely than not that the assailant in the assault was her client’s ex-husband;

b. Prior to the assault, the Defendant had negligently failed to remove her from her client’s file; and

c. The negligence was a cause of her injury, loss, and damage.

To the contrary, the Defendant contended that: –

a. It could not be concluded that the Plaintiff had been assaulted by her client’s ex-husband;

b. The Defendant did not owe the Plaintiff a duty to control a risk posed by the criminal offending of an unknown person;

c. The Defendant did not breach any duty of care owed to the Plaintiff; and

d. It could not be concluded that any negligence of the Defendant was a cause of the Plaintiff’s injury, loss, or damage. 

Decision

The Victorian Supreme Court found in favour of the Plaintiff, awarding damages in the sum of $1,244,615.55.  

The court opined that the risk to the safety of family violence outreach workers, such as the Plaintiff was both ‘present, palpable and quite real’ and plainly known to the Defendant. The court further opined that whilst the Defendant had established a series of measures, including the re-allocation of matters, designed to minimise or avoid that risk, this system did not operate as intended as the Defendant failed to enforce it.  

The court held that, on the evidence, the assault on 27 March 2013 was perpetrated by the Plaintiff’s client’s ex-husband. The court concluded that the Defendant breached the duty of care it owed to the Plaintiff as early as 2011, after the Plaintiff reported the specific threats made against her by her client’s ex-husband, and continued thereafter as threats and incidents continued to reported, but were not acted upon, by the Defendant. In the court’s opinion, had the file been re-allocated in October 2011, the Plaintiff would not have been assaulted, and thus, the Plaintiff’s injury, loss, and damage was caused by the Defendant’s breach of its duty of care owed to the Plaintiff. 

Conclusion

The Victorian Supreme Court’s decision in Bell demonstrates that the duty of care an employer owes to its employees can extend to safeguarding them from the risk of a third-party criminal act, such as assault. Whilst the court will consider whether systems were in place to minimise this risk, Defendants will need to demonstrate that such systems were actually enforced and followed, should they wish to rely on them to defend an action.  

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