April 25, 2015

A “badly written” account of the goings-on at an imaginary Queensland junior school is alleged to have been based on real dramas in the private lives of staff at an outer Brisbane primary institution, fed to the author by one of their number who was his wife.

In their personal injury lawsuits, teacher Jane Doe and janitor John Hancock alleged the state’s education department should have taken steps to prevent the novel being promoted at the school under arrangements made by the author’s teacher-wife.

Doe and Hancock had been the subject of distressing pranks and sexual innuendo at the school in the year following their relationship becoming public in 2006. The book – whose characters include a janitor and his teacher lover – is alleged to have contributed to their resulting psychological malaise.

Doe claimed the story’s heroine Jane Early, was a barely disguised image of her real self distorted by the false portrayal of her relationship with Hancock as one more or less consumed with a sexual desire frequently gratified upon school premises.

The work certainly “incorporated incidents which had actually occurred at [Brisbane Primary] and features of some of its staff,” according to District Court judge John McGill who was compelled to read the ‘novel’ to understand the plaintiffs’ claims.

But in a damning and probably unexpected critique, judge McGill pasted the manuscript as lacking “anything in the way of plot” and crippled by a “paucity of character development”.

“It is not the sort of book that I would ordinarily read and I took no pleasure from reading it,” McGill wrote following a trial that occupied the court for nine days. “It strikes me as badly written and has certainly been very badly proof read. Much in the book was not the product of original writing.”

Naturally enough, Brisbane Primary staff became uncomfortable about continuing to work with the wife of the author who some considered had breached the department’s code of conduct.

The judge concluded against a finding that she had deliberately “gathered material for him” though that may have been exactly what had occurred. More likely though in his view, couples naturally discuss their work “and it may be that the author’s wife had more to talk about of this nature”.

Although surprised and upset by the strength of the hostile reaction from other staff, she decided to quickly exit the school.

A literary crime for sure, but could Doe and Hancock record a compensation win on that ground alone?

Were the similarities between the pair and the characters so strong, that their distress was foreseeable? Or were points of distinction – between the characters on the one hand and the real life personages on the other – more dominant?

Certainly, in the judge’s view, the differences were more compelling and in accounting for those that saw only the similarities, he noted: “those associated with the school would be likely to look for points of similarity and would identify characters on a relatively slight basis”.

More telling to the legal resolution of their claims, judge McGill ruled the school had – in any event – no meaningful control over the independent actions of the author’s wife in promoting the launch of the book. Moreover, it had been promoted elsewhere, including in the teachers’ union journal over which the department obviously had no control.

In any case, a book launch was so rare – and the chance of unsavory goings on in its content being connected to actual staff members, so unforeseeable – no measures could reasonably have been required on the school’s part, to prevent the launch and the book readings.

Much less the case was it at all foreseeable that psychiatric injury to the protagonists, might result.

Judgment was entered against the pair and the only way that they can now access the $180k financial loss assessed to the each of them as a result of the events, is by way of appeal or by clearing a far higher lawsuit hurdle in a claim against their former colleague teacher or her author-husband, if one is even possible.

“Brisbane Primary”, “Jane Doe” and “John Hancock” are pseudonyms adopted by the editor.

Anor v State of Queensland [2015] QDC 083 McGill SC DCJ 16/04/2015

Categories: Personal Injury , Litigation & Law Practice

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