The Supreme Court has overturned an award of damages to an employee arising from psychiatric and physical injury caused by stress in the workplace. Employers will be encouraged by the finding in the case of Berber and Dunnes Stores, that the employer in this case responded reasonably to each of the incidents complained of, and was not liable for the harm caused.
In a unanimous judgment the Supreme Court found that
- the pattern of conduct of the employer in relation to a series of incidents leading to the employee's resignation did not amount to the repudiation by it of the contract of employment and
- the personal injury claim for damages for stress failed on the test of foreseeability.
The Supreme Court found that the employer responded reasonably to each incident as it arose and the only alternative responses available to the employer would have amounted to an abdication by it from all control of the manner in which the employer carried out the duties of his employment. The Judgment emphasises the importance of considering the conduct of both employer and employee and the cumulative effect of the conduct of the parties as a whole. The response of the employer was found to have been determined by the response of the employee to each incident and the employee's behaviour, including the involvement of his solicitor in relation to minor operational issues was found to have been unreasonable and to have damaged the employment relationship.
This Judgment should reassure employers that they are entitled to manage difficult employees in a robust but fair manner. The emphasis of the Supreme Court in this case on the reasonableness of the employee's conduct and the subsequent analysis of the employer's conduct viewed as a response to the employee's conduct and any alternative options open to the employer in the circumstances will be welcomed by employers. This decision together with the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Quigley –v- Complex Tool and Moulding, in which the employee failed on the issue of causation, should be of great assistance to employers defending employee claims for psychiatric injury alleged to have been caused by stress in the workplace.