High Court: Former An Post employee awarded €161k in bullying case



A former employee of An Post who was bullied and harassed by her co-workers after an incident in which another colleague was disciplined for aggressive behaviour towards her has been awarded over €161,000 in damages.

In a judgment published yesterday, Mr Justice McDermott accepted that negligence and breach of duty on the part of An Post caused the woman to suffer serious health issues including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and related physical symptoms, which he accepted were initially caused by the initial incident and exacerbated by the bullying and harassment to which she was exposed while at work.

Background

The plaintiff, Ms Catherine Hurley, began working in An Post in 2003. In July 2006, she was working as a sorter in the Cork Mail Centre in Little Island when a colleague, Mr J, became aggressive with her. The Court heard that Ms Hurley asked Mr J to pass her an item, and in response he approached her and came “almost nose to nose with her”, telling her not to “f***ing tell me what to do”. Ms Hurley said that she found the incident very frightening, and thought Mr J was about to head-butt her.

Immediately after the incident, Ms Hurley met her supervisor and filled in an incident report. She was driven home by a colleague who had witnessed the incident, and returned to work three weeks later. In the meantime, Mr J was suspended. Upon her return to work, Ms Hurley said that she was ostracised and isolated by her colleagues, who she believed blamed her for what had happened to Mr J, who was ultimately dismissed. Ms Hurley sought assistance from management on how she was being treated by her colleagues, but she was advised that it would “die down” and to persevere.

Prior to the incident, Ms Hurley had not exhibited any significant long-term physical or mental health symptoms. Evidence before the Court was that as a result of the accident she suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and numerous “chronic persistent” physical symptoms, such as muscle spasms in her neck, which were driven by stress. After the incident, Ms Hurley took time off work due to stress-related illnesses, and was ultimately dismissed by An Post in 2011.

Liability

In October 2017, the High Court determined the issue of liability. Considering, inter alia, Quigley v. Complex Tooling and Moulding  1 I.R. 349, Justice McDermott was satisfied that the conduct of Ms Hurley’s co-workers following her return to work “was, on the application of an objective test, highly inappropriate repeated behaviour which must reasonably be regarded as undermining her right to dignity at work”.

Justice McDermott said that the “…accumulation of petty daily humiliations and repeated spiteful or petty actions with a continuing social rejection or exclusion is the very essence of the bullying and harassment contemplated the legal definition” set out in the Code of Practice appended to the Industrial Relations Act 1990 and approved in Quigley.

Ms Hurley had been “subjected to debilitating and humiliating treatment on a daily basis of a petty and mean kind”, and accepted that this behaviour which was allowed to continue unchecked by her employer had a serious effect on her “well-being, her mental health and ultimately her ability to return to her employment”.

Finding that An Post was liable for the bullying and harassment of which it was aware and failed to address in any meaningful way, Justice McDermott held that An Post was in breach of its common law duty of care to her as an employee and under Section 8 of the Safety Health at Work Act 2005, and exposed Ms Hurley to damage and injury to her heath. Justice McDermott said that this damage to her health was reasonably foreseeable.

Damages

On reviewing Ms Hurley’s medical history, Justice McDermott was satisfied that there was nothing to suggest that she had been suffering from a psychiatric illness between 2003 when she started at An Post, to the date of the incident in 2006. He was satisfied that she was “happy in her work and had no intention of giving it up”.

The Court heard that Ms Hurley continued to find it difficult to engage in everyday life; that she had early and late insomnia, was irritable with anxiety and suffered panic attacks;  she reported flashbacks to events in the post office; had feelings of anger towards An Post and guilt regarding the effect of the injuries on her family; and it was concluded that she would likely be moderately symptomatic for the rest of her life.

Justice McDermott accepted the medical evidence that Ms Hurley was suffering from a moderate form of PTSD as a result of the incident, and that the continuing symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety were triggered initially by the incident; and were also caused and substantially contributed to by reason of the bullying and harassment to which Ms Hurley was subjected thereafter.

Justice McDermott also accepted that the neck and shoulder pain she experienced, impinged greatly on her family life and for a time caused her difficulties executing normal daily tasks.

Awarding general damages of €50,000; loss of earnings of €84,426; interest of €22,064; and special damages of €4,643; a total sum of €161,133 was awarded to Ms Hurley in the High Court.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News