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AATA finds customer abuse did not cause, or significantly contribute to, injury

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AATA finds customer abuse did not cause, or significantly contribute to, injury

2 October 2020 by Nes Demir

Mr Plummer took three months off work due to back pain and became depressed. His medication made his vision blurry and affected how his mind worked and felt. There were a number of personal events which exacerbated his depression, including his partner’s miscarriage, his father being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and his partner having significant surgery and suffering infections.

Mr Plummer advised his team leader of the above when he sought to leave work early one day following a difficult phone call with a customer. He did not return to work and presented numerous medical reports over the following months citing his unfitness by reason of anxiety and depression. During that time, he lodged a workers’ compensation claim.

Some of the medical reports referred to difficult phone calls Mr Plummer had with abusive customers at work, but any reference was made after Mr Plummer lodged his workers’ compensation claim and was in addition to overwhelming references to pre-existing and predisposing factors resulting in Mr Plummer’s condition and the exacerbation caused by the above personal events.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia (AATA) found Mr Plummer’s employer, NAB, was not liable for his condition. The evidence clearly showed the injury claimed, being mental illness, was first diagnosed when Mr Plummer took time off work for his back pain. Between then and lodging his workers’ compensation claim, Mr Plummer made no mention of issues with abusive customers to NAB nor his treating doctors.

See Plummer v NAB [2020] AATA 3759

Lessons

  1. In determining liability for a workers’ compensation claim, the first step is to note the illness or injury claimed and the date on which it was sustained.
  2. The next step is to determine whether the workplace was a significant contributing factor to or exacerbated the illness or injury. This requires consideration of medical evidence on hand and the information the employer had or ought to have had about the employee’s health. In this case, the medical evidence unequivocally showed the condition was caused by the back pain and exacerbated primarily by the above personal events. NAB was aware of Mr Plummer’s back pain and took steps to accommodate it (through an ergonomics assessment and arranging a disabled carpark). NAB was not aware of the issues Mr Plummer had with abusive customers. It was not reasonable to expect NAB to be aware of these issues as Mr Plummer did not make mention of them until it was too late.
  3. Where work plays a small role in exacerbating a condition, the claim may still be rejected. In this case ,the AATA accepted evidence that Mr Plummer had a very small number of dealings with abusive customers (who were ordinarily passed on to team leaders) and that if it did contribute to his condition, it would not classify as a significant contribution.

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