Employer liable for psychiatric injury of employee who collapsed at work and exhibited personality changes

The Supreme Court of Victoria found an employer failed to ‘take reasonable care to avoid any foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury’ to an employee, after he collapsed at work, made regular complaints and exhibited noticeable behavioural and personality changes.

Mr Roussety commenced employment at Castricum Brothers Pty Ltd, an abattoir and meat processing business as an operator in 2000. In 2001, he was appointed as acting manager and later served as second in charge to the new manager. In 2004 Mr Roussety was promoted to manager.

As manager, Mr Roussety agreed to accept additional work hours, working up to 70 hours per week, agreed to extra responsibility and a requirement to be on call 24 hours a day in exchange for a significant pay increase.

From mid-2006 onwards, Mr Roussety made regular complaints to the Managing Director and Operations Manager about the increased work pressures he faced, in part, as a result of maintenance and staffing issues. Mr Roussety gave evidence that he was even on call during his honeymoon.

Toward the end of 2006, the sales aspect of Mr Roussety’s position was given to another employee in an effort to reduce the pressure on him. Mr Roussety claimed this made his work harder and raised this issue with the Operations Manager.

In late 2006/early 2007, Mr Roussety told the Occupational Health and Safety Officer that he was suffering from depression and anxiety.

On the morning of 21 February 2007, Mr Roussety asked the Operations Manager if he could miss the training seminar being held that day as he had worked 20 hours over a 26-hour period. The Operations Manager denied the request.

On 26 February 2007, Mr Roussety visited the onsite medical clinic, where the nurse recorded stress and insomnia from excessive working hours.

On 28 February 2007, Mr Roussety fainted while at work and was taken to the medical clinic after working a 91-hour week. He was driven home by the Managing Director and was asked to step down from the role of manager.

Mr Roussety took sick leave from 1 March 2007 to 18 March 2007, however he was still on-call during this time. He was later absent from work from 23 April 2007 to 27 April 2007, however, he attended work on one day during this period at the Operations Manager’s request.

In July 2007, Mr Roussety blacked out at work after he complained to the Operations Manager of being tired, light-headed and exhausted and was told that he could not leave.

Mr Roussety claimed the defendant had a duty of care and the defendant failed to uphold this duty, resulting in him suffering psychiatric injuries, including major depression.

Decision

The Court found that an employer is required to take all reasonable steps to ensure a safe system of work for their employees and will be liable if they fail to take reasonable care to avoid foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury.

The Court ruled that senior management working for the defendant were aware that Mr Roussety was ‘exhausted, run down and stressed’, based on his collapse at work, ongoing complaints and change in personality. Further, the Court ruled that because of this, senior management knew, or ought to have known, there was a reasonably foreseeable risk of Mr Roussety developing a psychiatric injury.

Further, being away for three weeks in March of 2007 and asking to go home after telling the Operations Manager he had been at work all night, were ‘additional evident signs’ that Mr Roussety was at risk of psychiatric injury.

The Court ruled a reasonable person in the position of senior management would have reduced Mr Roussety’s workload and on-call duties, monitored his hours, increased the number of staff, provided support and encouraged him to take sick leave.

While senior management introduced some measures, they ‘did not go far enough’. Further, the Court found that suggesting Mr Roussety was not up to the role and failing to follow up or monitor him was not a reasonable response. Thus, Castricum Brothers ‘breached its duty to take reasonable care to avoid any foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury to [Mr Roussety]’.

Further, the Court found the hours worked by Mr Roussety increased far beyond what was anticipated at the time the contract was signed, preventing the defendant from arguing he had agreed to take on the heavy workload.

The Court has yet to determine the damages that Mr Roussety will receive.

Read the full decision here

* PCC Lawyers are a team of employment practitioners based in Sydney, with many years of combined knowledge and experience in workplace law, industrial relations, workplace investigations and training.  They provide a high standard of excellence and an exceptional level of personal service to a variety of clients in the Sydney metropolitan area, Central Coast, regional NSW and interstate. 

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