News & Thinking

Employment Court awards record $1.8m in damages for school counsellors’ mental harm

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Cate McArthur

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Cate McArthur

Anne Wilson

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Anne Wilson

The Employment Court Cronin-Lampe v The Board of Trustees of Melville High School has recently awarded almost $1.8m in damages, being the highest award of damages in the employment jurisdiction since 1992.

Mr and Mrs Cronin-Lampe were employed by Melville High School (MHS) in Hamilton as school counsellors from 1996 to 2011. During the Cronin-Lampes’ employment there were approximately 32 deaths in the community (including student suicides, fatal crashes, terminal illness and murder).

The Cronin-Lampes’ said they provided counselling, pastoral care, ongoing risk assessments and assistance to students, including a high number of at-risk students who required extensive support, as well as to staff and the wider community.

In 2012, the Cronin-Lampes’ were both diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In short, soon after the diagnosis the claimants contended that the Board of Trustees failed to meet its health and safety obligations and failed to manage workload and workplace conditions adequately.

Employment Court Judge Bruce Corkill held that MHS knew, or ought to have known, that their workplace was dangerous and of the onerous implications for the Cronin-Lampes’ created through the various traumatic events. The Court held that the totality of the multiple traumatic events occurring over the course of the Cronin-Lapmes’ employment caused the PTSD.

MHS was held to have breached its health and safety obligations, including:

  • failing to manage workload issues and stress levels;
  • failing to provide training and professional development (specifically around handling trauma and suicide); and
  • failing to provide adequate supervision.

Through these breaches MHS was held to have unjustifiably disadvantaged the Cronin-Lampes.

The Court awarded the Cronin-Lampes’ $1,792,317, collectively, in lost income, superannuation, rental income, interest, and medical expenses. The Court held that there was an obligation for the Cronin-Lampes’ to disclose the impacts of the circumstances to MHS, whether directly or via the Post Primary Teachers Association (the union for secondary school teachers), but this did not happen. To this extent, there was contributory behaviour justifying a reduction of damages by 5%.

The Court expressed that had MHS closely monitored the impacts the work had on the Mr and Mrs Cronin-Lampes’ mental health and provided additional training and supervision, this would have gone a long way to preventing harm to them.

This case serves as a reminder of an employer’s responsibility to consider and address health and safety risks to mental health and implement measures to reduce employee’s exposure to those risks.

If you have questions about this article or would like a confidential chat about your responsibilities as an employer, please get in touch with Anne Wilson.