Published 10 January 2016
The Supreme Court of Victoria has awarded an employee over $1.3 million in damages after finding that her employer was negligent in failing to provide a safe working environment and allowing her to be subjected to extensive abuse, sexual harassment and bullying by her colleagues.
Ms Kate Mathews was employed by Winslow Constructors, a large construction company specialising in civil engineering projects, as a labourer for two years. During her employment, Ms Mathews was subjected to repeated abuse, bullying and sexual harassment from Winslow employees and subcontractors.
Ms Mathews provided evidence that she endured daily sexual harassment, which included being shown pornographic material and being asked if she would do what she was being shown, being called a “spastic”, “bimbo” and “useless”, being repeatedly questioned over her sex life and having a colleague grab her hips and act out a sexual act on her.
Ms Mathews was unable to complain to her foreman as he was responsible for some of the offensive comments himself.
In July 2010 a colleague of Ms Mathews stated to her that he was “going to follow you home, rip your clothes off and rape you.” Following this comment, Ms Mathews was frightened and scared. She telephoned a person who she thought was responsible for Human Resources, with their comment being “come to my place… and we will have a drink and talk about it.”
Ms Mathews subsequently resigned as she was unable to continue to be subjected to such conduct. Ms Mathews visited a number of doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists and was diagnosed as suffering from major depressive disorder, significant chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and Bipolar II, caused by the treatment she received during her employment. In addition, Ms Mathews suffers from a jaw injury caused from constant grinding of her teeth. A number of medical practitioners gave evidence that Ms Mathews would be required to be monitored by a psychiatrist for the rest of her life and that she was unlikely to ever work again.
Winslow Constructors produced evidence of covert videos it had taken of Ms Mathews walking down the street and smiling, claiming that Ms Mathews exaggerated the extent of her psychiatric injury. Judge Forrest dismissed the evidence, stating it showed little about her mental state.
Winslow Constructors initially denied liability for the tortious acts of its employees, alternatively alleging that it was only contributorily negligent. However, on the fifth day of the hearing, Winslow Constructors advised the Court that it admitted that it was negligent and did not persist with its allegation of contributory negligence. This meant that Judge Forrest was only required to determine the quantum of Ms Mathews’ claim.
Judge Forrest found that as a direct consequence of the bullying, abuse and harassment Ms Matthews was subjected to by employees and subcontractors of Winslow Constructors, she had suffered chronic and significant psychiatric injuries that have and will continue to diminish the quality of her life.
Judge Forrest awarded Ms Matthews $380,000 in general damages to compensate her for her psychiatric injuries and jaw injury, $283,942 for economic loss she suffered between 2010 and 2016 and $696,085 for her future loss of earning capacity until she reached retirement age of 65. The total damages Ms Mathews was awarded totalled $1,360,027.