Reporter awarded $180k in damages for post traumatic stress

Friday 22 February 2019
Bree Knoester

The substantial trauma an Age crime journalist was exposed to resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, a Victorian court has ruled.

The reporter, who can only be referred to as YZ for legal reasons, has today been awarded $180,000 damages after Adviceline Injury Lawyers successfully argued that her psychological injuries were caused by the newspaper’s negligence and failure to provide a safe workplace.

County Court judge Chris O’Neill found that the injury should have been foreseen and could have been prevented.

“She received no training in how to deal with the trauma of the incidents she was required to report upon,” the judge said.

“The things she observed when she was required to cover a story were graphic and traumatic, being close to scenes where, in particular, children had been killed, often violently, would be obviously distressing. Seeing bodies being removed, undertaking “intrusions” upon families and neighbours and attending funerals brought with it distress and discomfort at such a level that it was no great leap of logic to conclude, if the matter was ever sensibly examined, that her distress would result in the development of a significant psychological injury.”

A three-week civil trial heard that the reporter had repeatedly asked her superiors for better welfare support and debriefing after covering stories about death and destruction every day for almost a decade up until she took a voluntary redundancy in 2013.

She covered multiple murders – including Melbourne’s gangland war – road deaths, fires and police shootings among other stories involving fatalities.

The reporter requested to be moved away from crime reporting in 2009, the same day she covered the story about 4-year-old Darcey Freeman being thrown off Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge. A year later, she was transferred to court reporting where she was required to cover murder trials each day. This included the trial of Darcey Freeman’s father who was found guilty of his daughter’s murder.

The judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to show the reporter had complained to several editors and HR personnel about the level of trauma she was being exposed to and the impact it was having, yet no training or adequate welfare support was ever provided.

The judge was also satisfied that the reporter had refused a request to be transferred to court reporting on several occasions because of the further trauma she would be exposed to, before she was ultimately transferred to the role in 2010 and her injury worsened.

“It must have been obvious to management at The Age that something was wrong, more than an isolated emotional reaction to a traumatic story, but a clear indication of the emergence of an underlying psychological disorder,” Judge O’Neill said.

“She should never have been requested, let alone persuaded, to undertake work as a court reporter given her complaints to The Age after the Darcey Freeman incident,” he said.

Managing Partner, Bree Knoester, from Adviceline Injury Lawyers, said the decision highlighted the duty of care all workplaces owed their employees.

Ms Knoester said that this landmark decision is a stark reminder to media organisations of their obligations to safeguard against the risk of psychological and psychiatric injury.

“When your employees are exposed to, and reporting on, details of the most horrific and devastating news stories, the risk of psychological injury is clearly foreseeable” said Ms Knoester.

Working extensively in the area of journalism and trauma for more than 8 years, Ms Knoester encourages other media organisations to review their systems, programs and procedures around trauma exposure. 

Ms Knoester, who has worked with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, notes that resources are readily available for media organisations and encourages them to take action, particularly in light of this decision. 

The Age’s WorkCover insurer, EML, subpoenaed medical records and consultation notes from Employee Assistance Program (EAP) sessions the reporter attended to unsuccessfully argue that her work was not the cause of her injury.

The judge ruled that had training and better welfare support among other measures been put in place at the newspaper, “while she may have suffered some distress or emotional reaction, that would not have developed into the PTSD that she suffers from today.”

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