A Queensland local government employee has been awarded more than a million dollars compensation for a work injury that a judge has ruled was caused by his employer’s negligence.
Queensland Supreme Court Justice James Henry also found that the psychiatric injury suffered by former Cairns Regional Council payroll supervisor Paul Ackers was reasonably foreseeable and could have been prevented.
The judge was satisfied that the severe depression, anxiety and PTSD Mr Ackers now suffers, which has also resulted in a severe stutter and tremor in his right forearm, was due to events that took place during his employment with the council between 2014 and 2015.
A four-week trial heard that when he was appointed to the council job, Mr Ackers was instructed by the then CFO John Andrejic to “fix the staff and fix the [payroll] system”.
But soon after he started in the role, three staff he was supervising went on sick leave after performance issues were raised.
Repeated requests for skilled replacements to be hired were denied by his superiors, leaving Mr Ackers’ team significantly under-resourced and struggling to ensure that council employees continued to receive their fortnightly pay on time.
He began working excessive hours to get through the workload – including working several all-nighters – but continued to be forced to attend non-essential meetings that put him even further behind.
Despite being visibly distressed at work on occasions, and being sent home or to see a doctor due to concerns about is health, little changed in relation to his workload or lack of staff.
He was blamed for payroll errors that occurred within his team, which resulted in him being placed on a formal Performance Improvement Action Plan. He also received an official warning after the team members on sick leave made complaints against him.
Mr Ackers’ mental health significantly deteriorated under the pressure until he ceased work altogether in September 2015. He has not worked since.
In awarding him $1.1 million damages, Justice Henry concluded that the council had breached its duty of care towards Mr Ackers, causing his major depressive illness.
“His illness has and will continue to cause him significant loss, for which a substantial award of damages will be made,” the judge said.
An emotional Mr Ackers said he was “relieved” that Justice Henry had found in his favour.
“All I’ve ever wanted was for the council to be held to account for what they’ve done to me,” he said. “This decision is a vindication and shows that they were negligent.”
His lawyer, Nicola Thompson, from Slater and Gordon, said: “We are pleased Justice Henry has acknowledged that the psychological injury Paul suffered could have been prevented by his employer.
“This decision should send a strong message to all employers that they must fulfil the duty of care they have towards their employees, or they will be held to account for the physical or psychological injuries suffered.”