Written by Peter CarterMay 27, 2017
A “hard-working” hire car worker has been rendered unemployable from the psychological decompensation that followed a seat-pocket needle stick injury.
In March 2013, night duty car detailer Colin White was in the Hertz lot at Brisbane Airport detailing returned rental cars.
White felt a painful jab into his right hand as he reached in to clear a seat pocket.
He “just went into shock” as he removed his hand from to see a needle and syringe stuck deep into his finger.
Headaches and severe sweating quickly started, followed by night sweats – he frequently needed to shower and change clothes – shaking and incontinence.
White returned to full duties after four weeks, with his symptoms unabated.
A blood test “reassurance” after 3 months that he had not contracted an infectious disease did not improve his mental state.
Rather, it deteriorated and he resigned in November 2013 and has not worked since.
Psychiatrist Eric De Leacy reported that because White had perceived the event as life-threatening he had a most likely permanent condition similar to post-traumatic stress.
“He is so disorganised and so stressed he is not able to concentrate on work,” Dr De Leacy wrote. The condition was most accurately described, in his view, as a chronic adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood.
Hertz conceded that the needle stick incident had contributed to his mental health issues but – on the evidence of psychiatrist Harvey Whiteford – only for a short period.
In Dr Whiteford’s view, the many other stressors at play – including his marriage breakdown, his resignation from employment and a wrist injury – were the current cause of his disability.
Justice Martin Daubney rejected that conclusion ruling that “the needle stick incident was causative of his ongoing mental health issues”.
But that did not entirely rule out such factors from the determination of what damages should be allowed.
The judge noted that Hertz must “take him in the condition he is found to be, with such inherent vulnerabilities as he might possess” but also concluded White to be someone “prone to mental decompensation by reason of any stress of a significant magnitude”.
Significantly, the car detailer had lodged another claim against Hertz for injury to his shoulder said to have been occasioned by the physical effort required to get mud-covered 4WDs cleaned and detailed within his 15 minute KPI allowance.
The records showed the orthopaedic symptoms of that injury to have abated but the associated stress was one of the factors led to his hospitalisation for psychiatric treatment in February 2014.
But unless Hertz could “prove precisely” the extent of such other stressors on his present incapacity, the law required White receive the full amount of damages assessed.
On this point the rental company had a win. The court accepted that even if the needle stick incident had not occurred, the shoulder condition of itself was likely to have caused him “a degree of mental decompensation”.
On that basis Justice Daubney ruled White should be denied 50% of the financial loss occasioned by his psychological impairment.
The resulting assessment includes $79k for loss of past income and $200k for loss of earning capacity over 12 years to age 67, making up a total assessment of just over $400k, from which approximately $92k was deducted for WorkCover benefits already received.