Anecdotal evidence suggests that whilst workplace stress claims
continue to rise, they do not often result in actions for common
law damages. However, one such claim was recently considered by the
District Court in Finlay v The State of Western Australia
The Court dealt with a claim for damages arising from stress
caused in the workplace involving allegations of negligence and
breach of contract. The decision highlights the importance for
employers of conducting regular performance reviews and
establishing and implementing pragmatic policies within their
The Plaintiff, a long term employee of the Defendant, alleged
that she suffered a psychiatric injury and sought damages as a
result of being subjected to excessive workloads and distressing
telephone incidents. She claimed her illness developed during her
employment between 2003 to 2007 (material period)
and particularly, as a result of her being subjected to abusive and
distressing telephone calls which were made by a customer on 12
April 2005 (material day).
The Court observed that an employer's duty included a duty
to take reasonable care to eliminate risks for both physical and
mental injuries. The principal issue at trial was the
foreseeability of the Plaintiff suffering psychiatric injury during
her employment. It required the Court to consider whether the risk
of the Plaintiff suffering a recognised psychiatric condition was
reasonably foreseeable, in the sense that it was not far-fetched or
The Plaintiff's case
The Plaintiff claimed that during the material period:
She was required to carry out duties in an extremely stressful
The quantity of work was too great; and
There were inadequate staff levels and limited security was
She also claimed that the telephone calls that she received from
a client on the material day were distressing to her as a result of
the nature of the abuse that she received.
The Plaintiff claimed that she had experienced panic attacks
during the material period which she attributed to her employment
and claimed that she had reported them to the Defendant.
The Defendant's case
The Defendant adduced evidence of regular performance reviews in
which there was found to be no evidence that the Plaintiff was
having difficulty coping with her duties. It was also established
that the Plaintiff had not worked excessive hours and that her
absences on sick leave were not prolonged, extended or frequent, or
due to psychiatric problems.
The Court did not accept that the Plaintiff had notified the
Defendant of her panic attacks. Whilst it was found that the
telephone calls taken by the Plaintiff did cause her distress, and
were material to the development of a psychiatric condition, the
Court also found that the Defendant had developed and implemented a
policy to assist staff in dealing with aggressive or abusive calls.
The policy was considered to be a reasonable response taken by the
Defendant to a problem of which it was aware. Therefore, the Court
held that the Defendant had not breached the duty it owed to the
Plaintiff and her claim was dismissed.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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