Advertisement

Injury ‘not foreseeable’ in call centre

Keywords

Torts – negligence – duty of care – breach of duty – reasonable foreseeability of damage – psychiatric injury in the course of employment from serial and nuisance callers – defendant on notice – lack of support – foreseeability

Facts

The plaintiff was employed by the Brisbane City Council in a call centre. She started 28 July 2008. She had a background of some psychological issues in her past including a controlling relationship that caused some emotional trouble. In 2009 she had some time off work and was assessed by a psychiatrist. The defendant was aware of the issues and reduced her workload from five days to four days per week.

Over the course of her employment, the plaintiff was exposed to abusive and concerning calls. The worst was a frequent complaining caller, WOC. He frequently called to report maintenance issues. He could be condescending and tedious. A colleague of the plaintiff suffered anxiety as a consequence of a call from WOC in 2015 and reported that to her supervisor.

The plaintiff gave evidence that WOC became more problematic through 2016 as he would persistently call and then call back to make sure that his complaint was logged. Other times he would call back just for a chat. This disturbed the plaintiff. She asked for some time away from the workplace in October 2016 which she provided a medical certificate to her supervisor. Other staff members found WOC to be a problem caller as he could call 20-30 times a night.

On 5 March 2017 the plaintiff took a call from WOC that made her feel uncomfortable – he was in the ladies toilets at New Farm Park and complaining about the paint. The plaintiff broke down and couldn’t continue working. She lodged a claim for compensation and resigned 11 May 2018.

Decision

Judgment for the defendant. Claim dismissed. Richards DCJ, delivered 8 December 2023.

Advertisement

Ratio

The key issue was whether or not the work performed at the call centre presented a foreseeable risk of injury. Citing Koehler v Serebos (Australia) Limited (2005) 222 CLR 44 at 57, it was noted that “the relevant duty of care is engaged if psychiatric injury to the particular employee is reasonably foreseeable”.

The Court thought that this depended upon signs from the employee concerned. In this case the plaintiff had taken one afternoon off work in October 2016 and the day after that she was finding the calls from WOC hard to handle.

She had been treated for a major depressive disorder in 2009 for which the defendant arranged counselling and reduced her hours. She was not missing work regularly and was not failing in her work duties.

She was one of the best consultants in the call centre and took on extra shifts when asked. She handled calls from WOC calmly. The Court thought the fact that another employee was distressed by a call from WOC didn’t necessarily reflect on the plaintiff’s ability to cope. Aside from a meeting with her supervisor, there was little by way of external signs to “sign post the internal turmoil the plaintiff was feeling” (at [72]).

The defendant had a system of training and notification which were generally sufficient. She was not obviously floundering until she left work on 5 March 2017. In the circumstances, the injury was not foreseeable.

Share this article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Search by keyword