Background 

On 10 February 2017 the Queensland Court of Appeal in Govier v Unitingcare Community [2017] QCA 12 dismissed an appeal by a worker against a District Court judgment in favour of her employer. McInnes Wilson Lawyers acted on behalf of the employer and WorkCover Qld.

The worker had been violently attacked by a co-worker during a crossover of their shifts. The worker claimed damages for a negligently inflicted psychiatric injury based primarily upon an alleged breach by the employer of its duty to the worker to provide a safe system of work and/or the subsequent conduct of the employer where two letters were sent from the employer to the worker in connection with the investigation and whether the content and timing of those letters aggravated the psychiatric injury.

The Issues on Appeal 

The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the District Court judge. The worker alleged that the employer breached its duty by rostering the worker and her co-worker in a way which required them to meet at the change of shift. It was held that it was not reasonably foreseeable that anticipated contact between the worker and her co-worker was likely to result in the worker sustaining any recognised psychiatric illness. For that reason the worker’s claim for damages for her co-worker’s assault was correctly rejected.

The employer sent two letters to the worker investigating the incident which aggravated the worker’s psychiatric condition. The Court of Appeal affirmed that it was reasonably foreseeable that the timing and content of the letters would aggravate the psychiatric injury and that the employer had failed to take reasonable care for the psychiatric health of the worker. However, it was held that no employer’s duty arose to supply a safe system of investigation and decision making in relation to matters concerning the contract of employment itself. The Court of Appeal noted that careless and insensitive conduct is likely to be commonplace where an employer is investigating allegations of assault or other serious misconduct.

Ramifications 

The decision reflects that the employer’s duty to provide a safe system of work does not extend an obligation on the employer to supply a safe system of investigation and decision making in relation to matters concerning the contract of employment itself.

Where an employer’s response is reasonable and sufficient to resolve conflict between employees then it will discharge its duty.