In what was a remarkable result, a discontinuance on a claim for workplace stress, bullying and harassment has been secured, two days before the start of a four day trial, despite liability having been admitted. Steven Conway examines the case in the following KeyNote.
The claimant was employed by the defendant local authority as a housing officer. She alleged that she had been subjected to stress at work as a result of bullying and harassment by her managers. Internal grievances against her managers were upheld. The claimant was absent from work with depression and despite a period when she was seemingly rehabilitated back to work further events triggered a relapse in her condition and her employment was eventually terminated.
Following notification of the claim a decision was made by the council with its insurers to admit liability. However the claim was not settled as suspicions had been raised that the claimant’s medical condition might not be all that she claimed.
The claimant continued to be signed off work with depression by her GP however a post on the social media platform YouTube showed the claimant in a video recorded as part of a television presenter training course the claimant had attended, which appeared to be inconsistent with the claimant’s assertion that she continued to suffer from depression, to the extent that she could not leave her house or engage in social activities.
The claimant issued proceedings in which she claimed, supported by her own medical evidence, that she remained unable to return to work due to her ongoing depression and that she would not be able to return to gainful employment for the foreseeable future and not without extensive psychological treatment.
Following the issue of proceedings medical evidence was obtained by the defence which suggested that the claimant had indeed suffered from depression for a number of years, but that this had decreased in severity and that by the time her employment was terminated she was capable of work. On the defendant’s own medical evidence, the claimant would therefore recover damages.
However, no offers were made, as in the meantime further investigations showed that in the month after the claimant’s employment was terminated she set up a website promoting herself a model and joined a number of modelling and media agencies.
Photographs were obtained which showed the claimant attending photoshoots, which appeared to contradict her assertion that she found it difficult to leave her home and was suffering from ongoing depression.
Careful analysis and comparison of documents disclosed by the claimant from her personnel file with the council’s own records suggested she had amended text in her initial grievances to strengthen her claim.
The claimant’s complete Facebook profile was obtained by disclosure which contained posts which showed her presentation at odds with her continued assertions that she remained ill. However, comparing this to her previously public Facebook profile which showed her attending holidays, weekends abroad, music concerts and parties showed she had deleted some posts.
Carefully piecing together all the evidence obtained from treating doctors and therapists to whom she repeatedly suggested that her depression was ongoing, with all the evidence obtained from social media and the internet suggested that the claimant was exaggerating her claim.
Liability had been admitted for accepted breaches of duty and on the defendant’s own medical evidence the claimant was entitled to some damages for the years during which she had suffered depression and some financial losses. However, due to the extent of the exaggerated elements of her claim, which exceeded the apparently legitimate part of her claim, the claimant’s solicitors were told that the council was not prepared to make any offers of settlement to the claimant but would defend the claim at trial on causation and quantum and would seek a finding of fundamental dishonesty, due to the extent to which the claim was exaggerated.
In a normal personal injury case the extent of exaggeration or dishonesty is undoubtedly easier to determine with a physical injury than a psychological one. While there have now been a number of reported decisions where findings of fundamental dishonesty have been made in claims for personal injury, none of these involve claims for psychiatric injury arising out of stress at work. Exaggeration in cases of stress at work involving psychological injury is extremely difficult to prove.
That said, while there was no “silver bullet” which proved the claimant was dishonest, the overwhelming weight of the evidence obtained by the defence strongly suggests that the claimant had exaggerated her claim and was being dishonest.
Following disclosure of all the defendant’s evidence and in view of the robust approach taken by the defence, two days before the start of a four-day trial, the claimant served notice of discontinuance.