Judgment provides clarity for psychological work injury claims 
29 May 2020

A decision handed down by the Full Court of the Supreme Court yesterday provides some much-needed clarity on the eligibility of psychiatrically injured workers to claim compensation.

The appellant, a teacher, originally had her claim denied by the Department of Education but successfully argued her case in the South Australian Employment Tribunal (SAET). The Department appealed to the Full Court of the SAET, lost the appeal, before appealing to the Supreme Court and ultimately having that appeal dismissed.

The Department argued that the legal requirement that a workplace needs to be “the significant contributing cause” of an injury meant that a person who suffers a psychiatric injury can only be eligible for compensation if their work was the only cause of their psychiatric injury.

In welcome news for workers, this extremely narrow interpretation of the law was dismissed by the Supreme Court. Instead, the Court clarified that to have a claim for psychiatric injury accepted, the employment-related factors needed to be the most significant contributing cause of this injury. This means that employment factors must be greater than the sum of all non-employment factors for a worker to be eligible for compensation for psychiatric injury.

While the judgment should provide some comfort workers who experience psychiatric harm as a result of their work environment, the law still places a higher threshold on the ability of psychiatrically injured workers to claim compensation than for physically injured workers.

Given that psychiatrically inured workers are, on average, prone to taking longer than physically injured workers to return to work, the Society maintains that there is a strong case for legislative reform to treat psychiatrically injured workers the same as physically injured workers. There currently remains a different threshold, one that is higher, to have a psychiatric work injury accepted.

While not relating to this particular judgment, there also ought to be a discussion about the fact that workers who suffer psychiatric harm are not eligible for any lump sum payments, while physically injured workers assessed at similar levels of impairment are able to claim lump sum payments. There is no logical reason for this difference and it remains an obvious anomaly with the current work injury laws in South Australia.

Tim White