Company ordered to pay $435,000 for not preventing bullying

A Queensland Court of Appeal has found an employer vicariously liable for a manager’s ongoing “harassing and belittling” behaviour towards another employee and the “consistently excessive” workload, which led to the development of a psychiatric condition.

The employee began working for an aged care provider in 2007 as an administrative assistant. Initially, she enjoyed her work and was described as a “bright and bubbly” person.

The Court was told that when a new manager started in 2009, she was regularly treated by the new manager in an “offensive, intimidating, humiliating and threatening” manner. The manager frequently used confrontational body language and spoke to the employee in a patronising way. 

Unable to cope, the employee resigned and following the resignation, she was unable to work due to ongoing depression and anxiety.

She commenced proceedings against the employer in 2015, claiming damages exceeding half a million dollars. The employee argued the employer was:

  • Vicariously liable for the manager’s conduct;
  • Negligent in failing to protect her from the misconduct; and
  • Liable for failing to address her complaints.

The District Court held that the employer was not vicariously liable and did not owe a duty of care to the employee. However, this was overturned on appeal.

The Queensland Court of Appeal held that the employer owed a non-delegable duty of care to the employee and there was a reasonably foreseeable risk to her health in the circumstances. It said that “there was more than a far-fetched or fanciful risk that [she] would suffer a psychiatric illness without the exercise of reasonable care by her employer to avoid or minimise her stressful experiences in the workplace”.

The company was found to have breached its duty of care and was held vicariously liable for the manager’s mistreatment of the employee, which resulted in her suffering a psychiatric injury.

As the employee was unable to work, she was awarded damages for future economic loss of $435,583.

Important lesson for employers

Under occupational, health and safety legislation, employers have an obligation to ensure the physical and psychological safety of their employees. Employers must put in place reasonable preventative measures, such as workplace policies, to educate employees and to reduce the risk of them engaging in inappropriate behaviour. For more information on workplace policies contact NECA Legal.

Eaton v Tri Care (Country) Pty Ltd (2016) QCA 139

Disclaimer: This summary is not legal advice and for more information on appropriate Workplace Policies, call NECA Legal (WA) Pty Ltd on (08) 6241 6129 or email necalegal@necawa.asn.au.