In the recent case of Reeves v State of New South Wales [2010] NSWSC 611, the Supreme Court of New South Wales held that the Police Force of New South Wales (Police Force) owed the plaintiff, Mr Reeves, a duty of care and awarded general damages of $150,000 as well as damages for past and future economic losses calculated to the age of 65. Mr Reeves’ psychological injury was the result of his police work in the mid 1990s during, and in the aftermath of, the 1995 Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Force where inaccurate allegations were made against him. It was held that the injury was reasonably foreseeable and was caused by the Police Force’s numerous actions and omissions.

Background

The evidence of police officers who had worked with Mr Reeves described him, before he became ill, as a senior police officer known to be successful, hardworking, able, trustworthy, dedicated, popular and enthusiastic. During the course of the Wood Royal Commission, inaccurate allegations against Mr Reeves resulted in his integrity being called into question. Subsequently, Mr Reeves was portrayed in the media in adverse terms with the repeated inferences that he was linked to police corruption. There was no effort made by the Police Force to correct the adverse inferences. The Police Force’s representative at the Wood Royal Commission assured Mr Reeves that the record would eventually be set straight. However, this assurance was not realised. Mr Reeves was ostracised by other police officers and acquaintances. These events became considerable stressors which placed Mr Reeves at increased risk of psychological injury.

In 1996, a unanimous recommendation was made to the Police Board that Mr Reeves be appointed to the position of Commander in a Police Force agency, having been found to be the most suitable candidate for the position. However, the recommendation was not accepted by the Police Board, which had concerns about his involvement in the Wood Royal Commission. The failure to achieve the promotion for reasons unconnected with merit, and due to questions of his integrity, was the final trigger for the psychological injury. The medical experts who gave concurrent evidence agreed that he had suffered very significant psychological injury in the aftermath of the Wood Royal Commission.

Mr Reeves’ illness was exacerbated by two further incidents in 1998 when he was threatened with a weapon near his home and, on another occasion, when he was stabbed twice with a syringe during the course of his duties.  

The Police Force was informed through various medical reports that Mr Reeves had developed psychological injuries stemming from a culmination of the abovementioned events. However, the medical reports went unnoticed and the requirements under the Police Force’s rehabilitation policy were consistently ignored. On the evidence of the experts, an attempt at rehabilitation could have been of real assistance to Mr Reeves’ recovery had it been pursued when it was suggested by three of his doctors. This was consistent with the rehabilitation policy’s emphasis on the high priority of return to work. Moreover, Mr Reeves’ repeated approaches to the Police Welfare Branch resulted in no response or support being provided, other than payment for five consultations with a psychologist.  

Mr Reeves was medically retired in June 1999, suffering from chronic adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression.

Mr Reeves’ claims fell into a number of broad categories of alleged failures by the Police Force, including failing to monitor his psychological condition after a long career during which he had been placed in dangerous and stressful situations, failing to publish media statements to correct inaccurate allegations made at the Wood Royal Commission, failing to debrief or counsel Mr Reeves after he was adversely named in the Wood Royal Commission, failing to ensure that relevant information was provided to the Police Board with the result that he was not promoted, and failing to provide adequate psychological counselling once becoming aware of his psychological condition.

Judgment

It was held that Mr Reeves’ psychological injury occurred during his work as a police officer, was entrenched and had “brought his working life to an end”. Justice Schmidt concluded that Mr Reeves satisfied the onus to establish that the Police Force owed him a duty of care in relation to: the duties he performed in the investigation of a corrupt police officer in the Wood Royal Commission which resulted in Mr Reeves’ integrity being called into question; his treatment by other police officers in the aftermath of the Wood Royal Commission; the information it provided to the Police Board when he sought a promotion; the support which the rehabilitation policy envisaged Mr Reeves would receive, but which was withheld from him; and the incidents in which he was involved in 1998. Justice Schmidt held that it was reasonably foreseeable that a breach of these duties of care would put Mr Reeves at risk of psychological injury.

Her Honour took into account the common view of the experts that Mr Reeves was put at risk of psychological injury by the ongoing series of stressors to which he was exposed to in his work. Her Honour went on to state that “nothing” was a fair description of what the Police Force did to deal with the stressors to which Mr Reeves was subjected. Justice Schmidt held that a reasonable person would have: taken steps to ensure that the assurance made to set the record straight at the Wood Royal Commission was followed through, at least when the Police Board sought information regarding Mr Reeves’ application for promotion; ensured that the applicable welfare policies were adhered to; responded to the repeated approaches for assistance; and taken seriously the medical reports submitted to the Police Force. The steps which the Police Force took to manage these risks were deemed unreasonable in the circumstances. Justice Schmidt also concluded that there was no contributory negligence.

Implications

This case is a salient reminder that government, as an employer, must avoid situations where individual cases involving potential breaches of its duty of care “slip between the cracks”, are improperly dealt with or are simply overlooked. The case also highlights the importance of considering the effectiveness of welfare policies, critically reviewing current systems in place to address grievances, and the implementation of welfare policies on the ground.