Written by Peter CarterMarch 18, 2019
This first responder psychological injury claim arising from exposure to traumatic workplace events is instructive as to their inherent difficulties.
Paul James commenced ambulance work in 1991 in Melbourne and after a stint in the UK took up a position with the Queensland Ambulance Service in Mount Isa in 2004.
His roster there entailed some relieving work at Doomadgee, a single officer station on the Nicholson River in the Aboriginal Shire of Doomadgee between Burketown and the Northern Territory border.
It was exposure to four traumatic on-the-job events at that location between September and November in 2004 that caused an adjustment disorder to develop and the abrupt end to his career as a paramedic, by December that year.
Because James’ employer was not negligent in exposing him to those upsetting situations, any damages recovery would be impossible unless he could establish that that QAS had failed to provide sufficient post-incident support so as to avoid the onset of the psychological injury or its exacerbation.
QAS had a protocol for dealing with exposure to critical happenings. It included peer support; self referral counselling; a telephone counselling service and – for group exposures – coordinated critical incident stress debriefings.
James fashioned his case – that was eventually filed in August 2008 – on the theory that he should have been offered a critical incident stress debriefing notwithstanding that it was not called for by that protocol.
He “did not press for the trial to be heard until well over a decade after the events” observed Justice Jim Henry when the matter came before him in the Supreme Court at Cairns.
During the course of the seven day trial, James pressed the opinion of Townsville psychiatrist Michael Likely that had “early intervention by appropriate debriefing and/or counselling” occurred after his exposure, he would have suffered the condition “to a lesser extent”.
Judge Henry was asked to consider in those circumstances whether the QAS protocol was adequate calling as it did for individuals confronted by trauma, to engage in “self-help” rather than the “system of mandatorily imposed support intervention” that only applied to events that affected multiple employees.
James was taken to be well aware of the self-service counselling facility and indeed had taken (unsuccessful) steps to seek counselling by that means.
Mandatory intervention on the other hand – which had in fact already been trialed in some QAS districts – risked being seen as a heavy-handed invasion of privacy.
That trial was discontinued “after a few months because there were more problems – including resentment from ambulance officers – than benefits”.
The court concluded that James’s case was “an exercise in hindsight identification of a means” to hold his employer liable and took a poor view as to James’ credibility.
Justice Henry ruled the QAS Priority One protocol was an adequate measure to accommodate its duty to care for the mental wellbeing of its personnel. There had been no breach of duty on QAS’ part.
So strong did he fell of his conclusion, that he declined to even formulate any views as to causation “or for that matter quantum” as is customary in precaution against a decision being overturned on appeal.
For a first responder case where the employer’s response was ruled to be totally inadequate and where substantial damages were awarded, click here.