June 6, 2023

A court has ruled Queensland Corrective Services vicariously liable for injury compensation from a supervisor’s gut punch to a Woodford Correctional Officer because it was a bad method of staff management.

Justin Mason who joined Queensland Corrective Services in 2014 expressed disagreement with his immediate superior as to whether a particular prisoner was entitled to a contact” or “non-contact” visit.

Employer Directly LiableThe blow to a hernia scar on Mason’s stomach in January 2017 caused him to double over in pain while Supervisor Walker remarked to other nearby guards: “I’ve just had to accost Mr Mason. I don’t want to have to do it to anyone else”.

Mason – then aged 41 yrs – was shocked, confused and embarrassed so tried to laugh it off.

Walker remained rostered as his direct supervisor until Mason requested a redeployment to another part of the jail.

In response to that request, he was offered access to the Employee Assistance Program and reported the incident as a result of encouragement from his section manager.

In February – on return to work after some time off – an unknown officer called him a “dog c***t” as he was walking to his rostered post.

Others asked accusingly why he had “dobbed on” Walker and others still, ostracised him.

The accumulative effect of such behaviour – from which he received no employer protection or support – led to the development of PTSD and an adjustment disorder which by 9 March 2017, rendered him incapacitated for work.

His injury compensation claim – which included no element of physical injury – came before the District Court at Maroochydore where Mason dropped earlier contentions that QCS was liable for failing to prevent the foreseeable actions of its supervisor.

His case was advanced solely on the basis that the employer was vicariously liable for the assault perpetrated by its employee.

What had to be determined – Judge Gary Long SC observed – was whether Walker’s employment had a greater connection to the event than merely providing opportunity and occasion for it to have occurred.

Mason pointed out that the assault occurred by reason of Walker’s position of authority over him, thereby elevating his employment to a more critical position in relation to the events that occurred.

Judge Long accepted that position had noted the assault was “a wrongful form of management of a subordinate in the exercise of the authority vested in the supervisor by the employer”.

He gained support for that conclusion from the statement Walker had made to his subordinates that he had just accosted Mason and did not want to have to do it to anyone else.

Thus the assault was accepted as having been committed within the course and scope of employment so as to render the employer directly liable for it.

Mason also originally claimed against his employer for the subsequent abuse received from other prison guards. The case was though reduced at trial to a claim for lack of employer support against reprisals against his report of the original assault.

That was shown to have been consistent with the original concerns he had expressed to his section manager about “being called names and being ostracised because he was effectively dobbing on someone”.

Evidence also disclosed that QCS’s own policies were sensitive to the need for supporting “a public interest discloser” to protect against the risk of psychological injury and physical harm from reprisals.

The judge found it difficult to comprehend why – in light of that policy – action wasn’t taken immediately after the making of the report to roster Mason at a distance from Walker.

QCS was thus found liable for the failure by its personnel to protect Mason from the psychological consequences of the reprisals and ostracisation that eventuated.

Mason’s evidence was accepted as having been honestly and reliably recounted.

He recruited psychiatrist Robert Bell to support the view that his condition was related to the 2017 events rather than previous events when working in a New Zealand prison years earlier.

His colleague Professor Harvey Whiteford thought though that the January 2017 incident did not of itself cause the adjustment disorder because it was not a sufficient trauma and he had numerous pre-existing vulnerabilities.

The lack of employer support to him as “a public interest discloser” rose in significance as the cause of his mental deterioration because it had the effect of “perpetuating” the assault.

General damages of just $8,600 (ISV of 6) and past economic loss of $125,000 were allowed with just $49,000 for the future making up a total award of $208,000.

Mason v State of Queensland [2023] QDC 80 Long SC DCJ, 12 May 2023

Categories: First Responders , psychological injury

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