In a recent decision in the Supreme Court, an employer was found to have breached its duty of care by failing to prevent an employee from developing a foreseeable psychiatric injury in the course of his employment.
Castricum Brothers Pty Ltd (‘the Defendant’), a meat processing company, required Mr Roussety (‘the Plaintiff’) to be on call 24 hours per day and work up to 70 hours per week.
The Plaintiff was appointed to the position of rendering plant manager in 2004 and initially agreed to work long hours and be on call 24 hours per day. However, structural changes within the Defendant’s company (namely maintenance issues and staff reductions) caused the number of hours worked by the Plaintiff to increase above what was originally agreed upon in his employment contract. The Plaintiff subsequently developed a psychiatric injury, including major depression, and sued the Defendant.
The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendant negligently exposed him to a foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury in failing to provide “appropriate assistance and support” for inherently “excessive work demands.” The Defendant refused to accept that the psychiatric injury was a “work related injury”
In order to impose a duty of care on the Defendant, the Court considered whether the psychiatric injury that Mr Roussety suffered was the reaction of a “reasonable person” in the circumstances. In light of the long hours, ongoing maintenance issues and staff reductions Justice Zammit found that it would be reasonably foreseeable that an individual in the Plaintiff’s circumstances, would be at a “significant risk” of suffering from a “recognisable psychiatric illness.”
Justice Zammit found that the Defendant had the requisite knowledge of the Plaintiff’s deteriorating condition, “should have responded in a more supportive manner”, and that it was their obligation as his employer to “investigate his concerns” and “put supports in place.” Justice Zammit heard that the Plaintiff repeatedly complained to the operations manager about the workplace conditions and his health, including that he was stressed, exhausted and experiencing insomnia. The Defendant’s operations manager allegedly told the Plaintiff that she had “grown tired” of his complaints, sceptical about the link between the work and the symptoms of psychiatric harm experienced by the Plaintiff.
Justice Zammit ruled that the Defendant breached its duty of care to the Plaintiff in its failure to prevent the Plaintiff from working excessive hours, which the judge directly attributed to “injury to his mental state.” The damages that are to be awarded to the Plaintiff will be determined in a later hearing.
This case reflects the willingness of Courts to impose liability on employers whom provide poor working conditions for their employees and subsequently breach the duty of care that they owe to employees. If you have any questions regarding duty of care to employees please do not hesitate to contact Nick Stevens, Megan Cant or Jane Murray.