19 July 2022
The recent Federal Circuit and Family Court decision of Ruttley v Willis Brothers Installation (Qld) Pty Ltd  FedCFamC2G 430 has highlighted the need for employers to properly respond to and deal with employees’ requests and inquiries about their employment. In this case, the employer’s failure to do so made it liable for additional damages for the employee’s distress, hurt and humiliation.
The employer in this case conducted a business manufacturing and installing stone benchtops, and was one of a group of related companies controlled by a single majority shareholder.
The employee had worked up from apprentice stonemason to production manager, shareholder and director of the employer. He was also the employer’s licence holder for the Queensland Building and Construction Commission (QBCC), for which he received an allowance.
In late 2018, the employee was diagnosed with lymph node silicosis, brought about through his exposure to silica dust while working. The majority shareholder formed the view that the employee could not continue to work and sought to exit him from the business. When the employee refused an offer to buy out his shares, the majority shareholder started attempting to force him out of the company.
The employer was short-staffed following a spate of diagnoses of silicosis among employees. The majority shareholder repeatedly directed the employee to “get back on the tools” to help manage the backlog of work. This was despite knowing that WorkCover had directed all workers with silicosis to avoid working in environments containing silica dust.
This behaviour, together with the business difficulties, caused the employee significant stress. Things came to a head when the employer recalled the employee’s work car. As a result, the employee left work and obtained a medical certificate for sick leave due to stress.
Over the next few months, the employer progressively took away the employee’s entitlements. Another work car was recalled, his fuel card cancelled, and his mobile phone redirected to the office. The employer then stopped paying his QBCC allowance and his wages altogether.
The employer did not respond when the employee enquired about the reduction of his salary. Later, when the employee asked why his wages had stopped altogether, the employer replied that he had exhausted his leave entitlements. Finally, the employee was removed as a director from the company and was terminated.
The Court held that the employer had taken adverse action by:
The Court concluded that these adverse actions stemmed from the employer’s failure to properly manage the employee’s injury and inquiries. The employer failed to investigate whether the employee’s diagnosis with silicosis affected his ability to perform the inherent requirements of his role. The employer also failed to respond to the employee’s queries about the reduction of his salary and his accrued leave entitlements.
The Court awarded the employee $143,000 for economic loss, and $20,000 for distress, hurt and humiliation.
This case demonstrates that employers can be liable to compensate wronged employees for damages other than economic loss. Key lessons for employers include ensuring that employee requests and queries are properly dealt with and employee illnesses are managed lawfully.
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Author: Matthew Daly
The information in this publication is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavour to provide accurate and timely information, we do not guarantee that the information in this article is accurate at the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future.