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Ignoring manager’s bullying cost company $435,000

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

In Eaton v Tri Care (Country) Pty Ltd (2016), Ms Eaton began working for Tri Care, an aged care provider, in 2007 as an administrative assistant.

Initially, she enjoyed her work and was described by others as a “bright and bubbly” person.

However, when a new manager, Jane Harrison, started in 2009, the Court was told the worker was regularly treated by her new manager in an “offensive, intimidating, humiliating and threatening” manner.

Ms Harrison frequently used confrontational body language and spoke to Ms Eaton in a patronising way. When Ms Eaton approached the manager to discuss her aggressive behaviour, Ms Harrison screamed: “I will speak however I like”. On another occasion, using a raised voice, she said to Ms Eaton “I’ve never met anybody as stupid as you.”

Unable to cope, Ms Eaton was often seen crying and with trembling hands. About a year after the new appointment, Ms Eaton resigned when the manager screamed at her for taking a message for a patient, she told the Court.

The Court heard that following her resignation, Ms Eaton was unable to work due to ongoing depression and anxiety.

She commenced proceedings against Tri Care in 2015, claiming damages of $587,869. She said that Tri Care was:

  • vicariously liable for Ms Harrison’s conduct;
  • negligent in failing to protect her from the misconduct; and
  • liable for failing to address her complaints.

The District Court held that Tri Care was not vicariously liable and did not owe a duty of care to Ms Eaton. However, this was overturned on appeal.

The Queensland Court of Appeal held that Tri Care owed a non-delegable duty of care to Ms Eaton and there was a reasonably foreseeable risk to her health in the circumstances.

The Court of Appeal indicated 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”.

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

As Ms Eaton’s was unable to work, she was awarded damages for future economic loss of $435,583.

Lessons for employers

Under health and safety legislation, employers have an obligation to ensure the physical and psychological safety of their employees. Employees are also protected under anti-bullying laws under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

Preventative measures, such as workplace policies, must be in place to educate and train employees to reduce the risk of them engaging in inappropriate behaviour.

If an employee is behaving in a way that could potentially harm another employee, you must investigate any complaints promptly and take appropriate action.

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