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Case Summary

Employer liability for pre-existing mental illnesses

Plummer and National Australia Bank Limited (Compensation) [2020] AATA 3759 (25 September 2020)

The first step in determining liability for a workers’ compensation claim is to note the illness or injury claimed, and the date on which it was sustained.

Determining whether the workplace was a significant contributing factor to (or exacerbated) the illness or injury requires consideration of all medical evidence and any information the employer has about the employee’s health.

Where work plays a small role (i.e. not a significant role) in exacerbating a condition, the claim may still be rejected.

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  • 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.
  • Mr Plummer 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.
  • The Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia (AATA) found Mr Plummer’s employer, NAB, was not liable for his condition.
    • The medical evidence unequivocally showed the condition was caused by back pain and exacerbated primarily by 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 car park).
    • 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. 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.

Read the full court decision here.

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