The Victorian Supreme Court ordered the State of Victoria to pay damages in excess of $1.2 million to a former teacher at Werribee Secondary College, after he sued in negligence for the school’s failure to prevent what became a debilitating psychiatric injury.

Facts

The school reformed its curriculum so that students were grouped into classes based on their achievement levels. Mr Doulis, the plaintiff, was assigned a load of multiple “foundation” and “low” classes in his first years, although no special training on how to handle these classes was provided.

After experiencing difficulty with the classes, including an incident whereby a student made a throat-slitting gesture in Mr Doulis’s direction, Mr Doulis met with the school’s principal and two assistant principals. Mr Doulis conveyed to his superiors that he was not coping and could no longer teach his assigned classes.

Following the meeting, Mr Doulis sent a letter to the school outlining his high levels of stress, problems in his current classes, lack of support provided and requests for non-classroom school activities to be lightened and for a more equitable spread of classes. Despite the letter and the meeting, Mr Doulis was allotted additional “foundation” and “low” classes.

Mr Doulis subsequently left the school and was diagnosed with a chronic depressive illness. He unsuccessfully attempted to return to work at two other schools and attempted suicide several times.

Mr Doulis sued the State of Victoria in negligence. He claimed that the combination of the nature and number of the “foundation” and “low” classes he was required to teach, the visible signs that he was stressed about these classes, and the formal complaints made in the meeting and the letter imposed on the state a duty to prevent or reduce the risk of recognisable psychiatric injury.

Court findings

The court held that the state owed a duty of care to Mr Doulis and that it breached its duty. The court concluded that a reasonable person in the position of the principal or assistant principals would have recognised Mr Doulis was at risk of psychiatric injury after the meeting and letter. The central question was whether, in all the circumstances, the risk of a teacher sustaining a recognisable psychiatric illness was reasonably foreseeable and the court held that the risk was foreseeable and was not far-fetched or fanciful.

The court accepted the testimony of the psychiatric expert that if Mr Doulis’s condition had been addressed in September 2003 his condition may not have worsened to such a drastic extent.

{C}§     {C}Although the school had given Mr Doulis limited time off, the court found that this was not sufficient to discharge the school’s duty of care, as it was not combined with timetabling changes or other support.

Where the school went wrong

The school’s undoing in this case was its failure to adequately respond to the concerns raised by Mr Doulis in the meeting and subsequent letter.

The judgment makes it clear that had the school taken more proactive steps to assist Mr Doulis, for example by lessening his class load and giving him time to properly recover from his stress and anxiety, then it may have avoided, or at least mitigated, the damages that are now payable.

Lessons for Schools

Following this decision, it is important for schools:

  • To take active steps if they are given notice of, or can otherwise foresee, potential for an employee to suffer a psychiatric injury.
  • To consider flexibility if a situation arises where an employee is suffering from a mental illness. Extra leave, the implementation of further training, or other changes to the working environment might need to be considered, depending on the circumstances.
  • If granting an employee teacher sick leave because they are concerned about the effects of mental illness, to monitor the employee carefully, and assist them upon returning to work.
  • To take the mental health of employees seriously, and that care needs to be taken to avoid triggers for both psychiatric and physical injury in the workplace.

For more information contact:

Richard Anderson
Principal
Harwood Andrews
T: 03 5226 8524
E: randerson@harwoodandrews.com.au

Felicity Price
Associate
Harwood Andrews
T: 03 5226 8590
E: fprice@harwoodandrews.com.au