Manager unravels after telephone death threat


Manager unravels after telephone death threat

A claims manager who was abused and threatened by a client has won her battle for further compensation.

A claims manager who was abused and threatened by a client has won her battle for further compensation.

In addition to compensation for a serious psychiatric reaction experienced immediately after she received a death threat over the phone, compensation has been awarded for two additional claims over a year later.

This was because medical reports stated the symptoms had arisen from the same event.

‘You’re a f***ing bitch and I’m going to f***ing kill you’

A woman employed as a claims manager in a public service organisation received threats during a phone call on 1 September 2015. She was trying to arrange a medical appointment for a client who was located in country NSW and insisted he could not travel to Sydney for an appointment. He became abusive and kept saying ‘You’re a f***ing bitch and I’m going to f***ing kill you’. 

The woman was very upset by the threat and was assessed by a psychiatrist as having developed an adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depression from the incident. She claimed workers compensation according to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988, which was accepted. After a brief absence, the woman continued working though without having direct contact with clients, and from 2 May 2016 she worked as a legal support officer. 

The woman continued to feel vulnerable at work ,and being spoken to rather sharply by a team leader increased her feeling of helplessness and worthlessness. She took time off work on 1 and 2 December 2016. On 16 December 2016 she was again distressed, panicky and fatigued and with a certificate of incapacity remained away until August 2017. She started a graduated return-to-work program, but was unable to cope on the third day. She then remained off work until 14 March 2018, when she commenced another graduated return-to-work program in a different section and remained in employment there.

The woman had lodged compensation claims for the additional absences from work for the periods 1-2 December 2016 and from 14 December 2016 to 23 July 2018 because of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression resulting from the incident on 1 September 2015. Comcare did not accept that the incident could have been the cause and rejected her claims. She sought review of the determinations, but the review decision handed down on 10 April 2017 affirmed the earlier rejections. She then applied for a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Medical reports identified chronic PTSD 

The woman had been assessed by at least four psychiatrists, most of whom diagnosed chronic PTSD because of the phone calls threatening her life. Additional diagnoses included anxiety, major depressive disorder and dysthymia also arising from the incident. 

The employer relied on a report by a further psychiatrist, who contended that the woman knew that the caller had been in country NSW and could not come to Sydney. Therefore, the threat had not been realistic and could not have caused such severe long-term symptoms. He alleged that any initial adjustment disorder and depression could not have lasted longer than six months, and the woman’s current condition had arisen because of her dispute with Comcare and involvement in litigation.

Majority view accepted

Tribunal member West was satisfied by the medical reports by the woman’s medical specialists and accepted that her subsequent absences had been a direct result of her reaction to the abusive phone call. The employer’s medical specialist had no knowledge of the abusive caller’s state of mind or ability to come to Sydney and locate the woman. His opinion that her initial symptoms would have resolved within six months was at odds with the other various medical reports from throughout the period since the incident. His opinion could not be preferred over those of the other specialists.

Mr West was satisfied that the woman suffered from PTSD as a result of the 2015 incident and that the condition had resulted in her total incapacity for work on 1 and 2 December 2016 and from 14 December 2016 to 14 March 2018. There had been partial incapacity from 14 March 2018 until 23 July 2018. 

Comcare’s reviewable decision of 10 April 2017 was set aside. Comcare was ordered to pay the woman workers compensation for the additional periods in her claims.

Read the judgment

Kowal and Comcare (Compensation) [2018] AATA 4218 (13 November 2018)
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