A sadly common feature of some workplaces are arguments between employees, which occurred in Sheraden Jayne Browne v Workers’ Compensation Regulator  QIRC 060
The issue was, just because an argument happens in a work setting, and the only injury was a psychiatric one, was work a “major significant contributing factor” to the cause of the injury?
Mrs Browne worked at Woolworths and part of her job was to check food items had not reached their expiry date and to clean out the cool room. She had left 3 trolleys outside the cool room as part of doing this task. A fellow employee needed to access the area so pushed the trolleys back inside the cool room, (intending to return them once he finished gaining access), which upset Mrs Browne and a short, voices raised argument about the trolleys ensued. Mrs Brown became deeply upset, left work and was found to have suffered an injury.
Mrs Browne alleged she was yelled at and sworn at, while the other party admitted raising his voice in response to her yelling. The self insurer accepted she was injured during work, but denied work was a major significant contributing factor, saying this was just a personal argument between 2 employees with a history of disliking each other, and work was just the setting for their latest confrontation.
Mrs Browne submitted the argument was about work, so it was the only significant contributing factor.
Counsel for the regulator put their case in paragraph 14 of the judgment as follows:
“Mr Rashleigh, counsel for the regulator, submits that unless I accept Mrs Browne’s version of the
events, I cannot find that the employment is the major significant contributing factor to the injury
because the injury was not due to her employment. His argument is that because she was the
instigator of the altercation that was the cause of the injury, she took herself outside the
employment. He submits that employees are not at work to abuse one another. It follows that when
they do so they are outside the employment. Mr Rashleigh went on to submit that going in there and abusing someone to the extent that it causes a reaction brings the action outside the employment; that such conduct is not part of Mrs Browne’s employment.”
Deputy President Kaufman was brief in rejecting this argument, saying in paragraph 15 of the judgment:
“I do not accept Mr Rashleigh’s argument. Both Mrs Browne and Mr Gourlay, as well as Mr Kernke,
were going about their duties when the argument broke out. What occurred was a disagreement
about how the work was to be performed that escalated into an argument. That incident was the
major significant contributing factor to Mrs Browne’s personal injury. Exchanges between employees
are an inherent part of their employment. The fact that an exchange escalates into an argument
does not remove the activity from the employment.”
The case seemed to have been clouded by prior events, and whether reasonable management action was involved, but narrowed on hearing to this issue of whether the argument took it outside the scope of employment. The statutory scheme is also a no fault scheme. The only exception is if an employee deliberately fails to follow an employer’s direction. So here, even if Mrs Browne was the instigator of the argument, it nevertheless did not lose the connection with her workplace.
Salerno Law assist employees with matters that arise in this area, such as unfair dismissal, bullying and harassment, non-compete agreements. and workplace injuries. Often, when you are the ‘little guy’, you feel like you have to bear the tribulations your deranged bosses and co-workers and even your work environment imposes upon you. However, in this area of law, if it seems wrong, then it may unlawful, which means you may have rights against your employer. This is the origin of the legal adage, ‘if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, ask your lawyer about it’. At the end of the day, it is always best to check because you will never know if you do not seek advice first.
Salerno Law’s experienced personal injury and compensation law team are comprised of the best in the field. Our reputation for excellence attracts the brightest minds in this area of law. We have specialists who can help you with every kind of compensation claim including:
Article by Peter Matus