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PLAINTIFF FAILS DESPITE BREACH OF DUTY

24 October 2012

In the Supreme Court of Queensland decision of Wolters v The University of the Sunshine Coast [2012] QSC 298 delivered on 5 October 2012, Applegarth J found the University of the Sunshine Coast ("the University") had breached its non-delegable duty of care to the Plaintiff, however did not accept the breach of duty caused the Claimant's injury.

 

Background

The Plaintiff was employed as a security guard at the University. On 14 March 2008 at around 8.25am there was a power outage on the University campus. During the outage Mr Mark Bradley (Director of Capital Programs and Operations, hereafter referred to as "Bradley"), whilst responding to the outage, confronted the Plaintiff. Bradley acted aggressively towards the Plaintiff. He walked quickly towards the Plaintiff, yelling at her and waved his arms at her. Bradley accused the Plaintiff of having abandoned her duties.

During the confrontation the Plaintiff attempted to explain she had not abandoned her duties but to no avail. Bradley ordered her to get back to work and stormed off. 

As a result of Bradley's behaviour towards the Plaintiff, the Plaintiff developed a psychiatric injury.

 

Decision

The Plaintiff submitted the University had been vicariously liable for Bradley's behaviour. Evidence was led by the Plaintiff the University was aware prior to 14 March 2008 that Bradley was aggressive, capable of arousing fear and distress in female employees and capable of causing injury to them. Bradley had behaved aggressively to another employee prior to the subject event resulting in the prior employee developing psychiatric injury (depression) and lodging a formal complaint with the University about Bradley's behaviour. The Court accepted the University did not sufficiently investigate the aggrieved employee's complaint and did not sufficiently reprimand and/or counsel Bradley to prevent such an event occurring again. Therefore, the Court found the University breached its common law duty of care to the Plaintiff.

Despite this finding, the Court held that "A Defendant..... is not liable unless the risk (of injury) comes home in the sense that the Court is ultimately satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the Defendant's breach caused or materially contributed to the harm actually suffered".

Justice Applegarth found Bradley would have taken on board a reprimand and counselling that further aggressive behaviour would not be tolerated. However His Honour was not persuaded such reprimand and/or counselling would have prevented the subject incident with the Plaintiff. The power outage did not evolve in the course of Bradley's normal duties. He was reacting to what he perceived to be a crisis situation and reacted impulsively. His Honour found a reprimand and proper counselling in response to the incident involving the prior employee was unlikely to have altered Bradley's impulsive response to the Plaintiff's perceived abandonment of duty at the height of a crisis. The Plaintiff failed to lead evidence on this particular point to persuade His Honour to make a finding in her favour. Therefore, His Honour found the Plaintiff failed to prove the University's negligence caused her psychiatric injury.

His Honour ordered the Plaintiff be awarded nominal damages ($100.00) for breach of contract, otherwise her claim was dismissed.

 

Comment

This case demonstrates the onus remains on the Plaintiff to prove that the harm suffered in fact resulted from the risk of injury, or increase to the risk, created by the Defendant's breach of duty.

The mere fact that a breach of duty has occurred, followed by an injury within the area of foreseeable risk, does not necessarily mean the breach of duty caused the specific harm to the Plaintiff.

For further information, please contact:

Cameron Seymour | Partner
Mullins Lawyers
t +61 7 3224 0360
f +61 7 3224 0333
cseymour@mullinslaw.com.au

Rachel Willmott | Solicitor
Mullins Lawyers
t +61 7 3224 0385
f +61 7 3224 0333
rwillmott@mullinslaw.com.au

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