A recent Supreme Court of Victoria judgment an analysis of Nicholas Alan Taylor v Haileybury [2013] VSC 58 has questioned the integrity of legitimate psychological claims arising out of a worker’s course of employment.

 

Facts

Nick Taylor, a 38 year old Actor and former high school teacher at well-known Melbourne private school Haileybury, alleged he was psychiatrically injured from overwork and stress whilst working as a french teacher at the school’s Brighton campus between January 2005 and May 2007. He was 32 at the time of the commencement of his alleged injury.

Mr Taylor made a claim for pain and suffering damages and pecuniary loss damages pursuant to s 134 AB of the Accident Compensation Act (VIC)1985. He alleged that his face to face teaching time was excessive which lead to his unreasonable and excessive stress and strain placed upon him. Haileybury denied it was negligent or breached his employment contract with Mr Taylor. Haileybury relied on six witnesses who it employed at the time of the Plaintiff’s alleged injury. Those witnesses all described Taylor as disorganised who never complained about his workload and never had language teaching classes greater than any other language teacher. .

Beach J was not impressed with Taylor as a witness. He believed his description of his work in evidence at Haileybury was exaggerated. Whilst not doubting teaching is a busy profession, Beach J concluded that ultimately there was no basis the defendant could suspect that Taylor’s mental health was at risk of a result of his workload during the course of his employment.

Decision

Beach J did not accept reasonable foreseeability was the only determinant of the content of the duty of care in a psychiatric injury case, relying on Koehler v Cerebos (Australia) Limited, as such it was found other factors were relevant in determining the content and scope of the duty of care of the employer such as:

  1. The contract of the employment;
  2. The nature and extend of the employee’s work;
  3. Any signs from the employee concerned;
  4. An assumption that the employee taking on the employment is capable of doing the job.

Beach J found the tasks Mr Taylor was required to perform were consistent with his contract of employment.

Having regard to all the evidence, Beach J found that emailed complaints from time to time as to workloads and difficulties do not bespeak the potential for or the existence of, psychiatric injury or risk. Beach J ruled there was no breach of duty (contractual or otherwise) of the defendant in this case, and being a well-educated member of his profession, Taylor was capable of raising his concerns pertaining to his psychiatric health or otherwise, to his peers who were equally well educated teachers. According to Beach J, it was Taylor’s choice to do this job and there could be no reason for the defendant to suspect the workload it required of Taylor placed him in any risk of psychiatric injury.

Above all, Beach J found Haileybury did not breach their contract of employment and were not negligent. Beach J ruled Taylor had failed to establish the implementation of additional policies, the education of staff, the provision of further information or training, the provision of counselling or the offering of treatment would probably have alleviated the risk of the plaintiff suffering psychiatric injury. Furthermore, according to Beach J any particular reduction of the plaintiff’s workload would have made any difference to his condition in any event.

As such, Taylor’s claim was dismissed.

Implications

What we learn from this case is the importance of analysing any complaints from Workers about the way they are feeling at work.

Furthermore, in cases where a breach of duty of care or a breach of contractual arrangements are relied upon, it is important to analyse the terms of the relevant contract of employment.