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Workers Compensation Explained: Significant decision on claims for psychiatric injuries.

Psychiatric injuries do not occur in a vacuum. There may often be multiple employment related factors as well as multiple non-employment related factors that contribute to a psychiatric injury.

The Return to Work Act 2014 provides that a psychiatric injury will be compensable where the employment is “the significant contributing cause of the injury”.

The South Australian Supreme Court recently set out how to approach this complicated assessment and when psychiatric injuries will be considered compensable.

In The State of South Australia v Van Hattem (No. 2) [2020] SASCFC 45, the Full Court of the Supreme Court of South Australia was required to interpret how this assessment ought to be approached where there are multiple employment and non-employment related factors.

There were two interpretations put forward for the Court to consider. The first was that a psychiatric injury is compensable where the employment is the only significant contributing cause of the injury. The second was that a psychiatric injury is compensable where the employment is the most significant contributing cause.

If the first interpretation was correct, then an employee having other significant contributing factors in their personal life would operate to exclude the claim from being compensable. If the second interpretation was correct, then having other significant contributing factors would not operate to exclude the claim but it would be necessary to consider which of the significant factors was the most significant overall.

The Court held that the second interpretation was correct. The employment must be the most significant but does not necessarily need to be the only significant cause of the psychiatric injury to be compensable. The decision highlights that significant issues in an employee’ personal life will not exclude a claim.

Usefully, Kourakis CJ provided a succinct summary:

the requirement of s7(2)(b) of the Return to Work Act 2014 (SA) (the RTW Act) that ‘employment was the significant contributing cause’ necessarily requires the identification of a cause which can be described as ‘the significant cause’. Only if employment is that significant cause, is the injury compensable. A psychiatric injury may have a number of causes which would individually qualify as a ‘significant cause’ within the meaning of that expression in s7(2)(a) of the RTW Act. Nonetheless, s7(2)(b) of the RTW Act requires the identification of that one of those causes which is, relative to the others, ‘the significant cause’. Ultimately, therefore, ‘the significant contributing cause’ is the most significant of the contributing cases.”

The Court went further and answered, with the above interpretation in mind, how to approach the issue where there are multiple employment and also multiple non-employment related factors. An example might be where a psychiatric injury is caused by bullying at work, poor management response to the bullying, a family relationship breakdown, and health concerns about a loved one. Here the bullying and poor management response are the employment causes, and the family and health issues are non-employment causes. The Court highlighted that the correct approach is to aggregate all the employment factors and the non-employment factors, and form a view whether the employment factors are more significant than the non-employment factors. It essentially involves a weighing up of the employment causes collectively.

Workers compensation claims involving psychiatric injuries can be complex. Should you require advice about workers compensation matters or employment law more generally, please do not hesitate to contact our Employment & Workplace Relations team.

This publication has been prepared for general guidance on matters of interest only and does not constitute professional legal advice. You should not act upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining specific professional legal advice. No representation or warranty (express or implied) is given as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this publication and to the extent permitted by law, Cowell Clarke does not accept or assume any liability, responsibility or duty of care for any consequences of you or anyone else acting or refraining to act in relation on the information contained in this publication or for any decision based on it.

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