Background

In Greenway v The Corporation of Synod of the Diocese of Brisbane[1] Kingham DCJ in the District Court of Queensland at Brisbane awarded a an injured worker employed as a carer $454,935.68 in damages for a psychiatric injury after she was assaulted by a 15 year old young person who was assessed as having ‘complex support needs’ (the client).

The client had a propensity for threatening behaviour and violence and earlier that year, at another placement, had assaulted another female youth worker and stole a car.

The carer was not physically injured.

However, the client swore at the carer, threatened to kill himself and jump through a window, broke a window and then picked up a large shard of glass and threatened the carer with it (the assault).

The carer suffered psychiatric injuries as a result of the assault.

The carer engaged with the client, applied de-escalation techniques and calmed him down. She then contacted a more senior person to report what had happened and what she had done to deal with the situation.

The carer remained alone with the client throughout the rest of the shift except for a visit by a tradesman that night to fix the window and a short visit by her supervisor around 9:00 am the next morning.

The Court found that the carer was told that there was no need for anybody to come over to the house because the injured worker had successfully deescalated the situation. The carer did not ask for any assistance from her supervisor or anyone else. The supervisor did not offer to provide any alternate staff to assist or relieve the carer after the event.

Breach

The carer alleged that her employer should be liable to her for the injuries arising from the psychiatric distress she experienced after the assault with the young person. The injured worker alleged that her employer should be liable because:

1.The Employer failed to prevent the incident;

2.The Employer failed to adequately respond to the incident.

Prevention

The Court was not satisfied that the employer breached its duty of care by failing to prevent the incident. The client had been placed in the employer’s residential care setting pursuant to a Service Agreement between the employer and the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services. The Court was satisfied on the evidence that a reasonable employer would not have refused the placement in these circumstances.[2]

The injured worker also argued that a second person should have been provided to care for this young person. The Court was not satisfied that taking into account the young person’s conduct during the period of this placement (16 days prior to the incident) there was no reasonable basis for additional funding to be sought for a second person to be allocated to care for the young person.[3]

The carer also alleged that the employer’s training was inadequate. Again, the Court found that the carer had been reasonably and appropriately trained with respect to de-escalation techniques which she was found to have appropriately and successfully applied to what the Court described as a ‘potentially dangerous situation’ even when she felt scared and threatened.[4]

Response

However, the Court found the employer was negligent and breached the duty of care owed because the Employer failed to property respond to the carer’s report of the situation with the young person and its aftermath and impact on the injured worker. The Court was not satisfied that the employer had developed sufficient procedures and protocols relevant to Supervisors (Team Leaders) identifying, assessing and responding to the aftermath of an assault like this. The Court also found that the employer should have equipped Supervisors with the skills necessary to identify whether an employee should be ‘further assessed, assisted or relieved’[5] after an adverse interaction with a troubled client such as that involving the carer and this client. [6]

The Court found that a reasonable employer would have taken the following precautions:

1.Established guidelines for on-call Team Leaders to support workers caring alone for young people with complex or extreme support needs;

2.Trained on-call Team Leaders in how to assess a worker’s welfare in the aftermath of a crisis, considering emotional and psychological issues as well as physical safety.[7]

The Court was satisfied that these precautions would not have presented an unreasonable burden on the employer when balanced against the probability and magnitude of the risk of a worker being assaulted when caring for a troubled young person alone. [8]