Police officer loses liability case over psychological disorder

Published 08 Jun 2015

A NSW-based police officer has failed to prove his employers neglected to take appropriate measures to help him deal with a psychological disorder.

The 65-year-old developed chronic adjustment disorder and depression, which he alleged was a direct consequence of traumatic incidents he witnessed throughout his career.

These included the Granville train disaster, the murder of a baby and a fire in Brighton-Le-Sands. The officer also attended several suicides at Silverwater Gaol, which he considered particularly upsetting as he believed they were preventable.

People who undergo distressing events can suffer from a range of psychological illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be classified as a total and permanent disability (TPD).

According to the officer, his superiors did not take effective action when he began to experience the effects of chronic adjustment disorder. Specifically, he recalled two occasions where the defendant, the State of New South Wales, should have recognised the mental strain the man was under.

The first event was in 1999, when the officer asked to be transferred from his current police station, where he worked as a detective, to another unit where he would carry out less stressful general duties. Secondly, the plaintiff argued he did not receive enough support or notice ahead of a Police Integrity Commission (PIC) inquiry launched into his conduct.

Judge rules on liability

The judge found the defendant negligent regarding the failure to act sufficiently when the plaintiff asked to be reassigned. Justice Christine Adamson agreed the man should have been referred to a police medical officer or a private psychiatrist for further treatment for psychological strain.

However, she said the State of NSW – through its agents at the force – was not liable for the negligence because it likely had a minimal effect on the medical outcomes for the officer. In other words, the plaintiff would still likely have developed chronic adjustment disorder regardless of his employer’s conduct.

Furthermore, Justice Adamson did not find the defendant liable for failing to support the officer during his PIC inquiry or to adequately forewarn him that he was going to be investigated.

While the officer was not awarded damages for the liability claim, he may be entitled to various employment-related compensation and benefits under an insurance or superannuation dispute.

A TPD or income protection claim can result in significant payouts for people who have suffered injuries or mental health problems as a result of their occupation.

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