School negligent for exposing teacher to “feral” studentsMay 2, 2015
Employers in the education sector should take note of the recent decision of Doulis v State of Victoria  VSC 395, in which a Victorian teacher was awarded $1.27 million in damages after suffering a mental breakdown and chronic severe depression due to the allocation of an unduly heavy workload of “feral classes”.
What happened in the Doulis v State of Victoria case?
The teacher worked at Victorian secondary colleges between 1999 and 2007. In 2000, the school he was working at introduced “homogenous streaming” for its years 8, 9 and 10 students whereby students in those classes were divided into streams, the most academically challenging being allocated to “low” and “foundation” classes. The teacher claimed that he was treated unfairly by being allocated a high number of the most difficult students placing him under stress because of the discipline and work demands associated with managing those classes.
The teacher complained to the Principal and two Assistant Principles on a series of occasions and requested a reduction in the number of classes but his complaints “fell on deaf ears”.
Following an incident in September 2003, involving the teacher breaking up a fight between two students, one of whom shouted at him “You’re gone. I’m going to get you”, the teacher made a formal complaint to the Principal regarding his class allocation. On making the complaint, the teacher appeared distraught, broke down in tears and complained he could no longer cope with teaching such difficult students.
Despite the complaint, the school continued to allocate the teacher the problematic classes. His mental health deteriorated resulting in significant periods of sick leave until in 2007 he could no longer continue working as a teacher.
The teacher’s claim
The teacher sued the State of Victoria alleging 24 instances of negligence. It was alleged that his employer (acting through the Principals of the school) had breached its duty of care by failing to take reasonable care to avoid the teacher suffering a psychiatric injury. The duty of care was breached, it was claimed, by the school’s failure to modify the teacher’s low and foundation classes or provide adequate support and this led to the teacher suffering a psychiatric injury.
The Supreme Court of Victoria decision
The teacher succeeded in his claim in the Supreme Court of Victoria, which found that the State of Victoria (through the Principals at the school) had breached its duty of care towards the teacher by taking too long to respond to his concerns and not monitoring or supporting him after his various returns to work. The Court accepted that the teacher’s classes could be exceptionally difficult, stressful, and at times traumatic, due to the difficult behaviour and attitudes of some students and this was the cause of his major depressive condition. The teacher was awarded a total of $1,279,750 in damages (including $300,000 as general damages, $337,090 for past lost earnings, $550,000 for future economic loss and $70,000 as interest).
Although the Court acknowledged that the school did not become aware of the risk posed to the teacher until September 2003, the Court held that it should have been reasonably foreseeable that the teacher might suffer a psychiatric injury because of the continued allocation of low and foundation classes. In failing to act, the school breached its duty to take reasonable care to avoid the injury occurring.
Some of the factors leading to make the finding of breach of duty of care included:
- At the time he was allocated the low and foundation classes, the teacher had only six or seven years’ experience as a teacher, no training and little mentoring to assist him to teach these students.
- Even after his concerns were raised with the Principal, the teacher’s allotment of low and foundation classes was amongst the highest of any of the 100 teachers at the school.
- Despite medical evidence and the teacher reporting he was not coping with his class allocation, the school did not reduce the teacher’s number of low and foundation classes and did not put in place any formal monitoring of him, or enquire about his condition.
- The teacher looked tired and dishevelled and took significant sick leave suggesting he was not coping with the class allocation.
Take away tips
The Supreme Court’s decision demonstrates the importance of schools taking early steps to respond to signs of workplace stress of which they have actual notice or that might otherwise be reasonably foreseeable. Practical steps that could have been taken by the school in this case that would have enabled the school to discharge its duty of care included:
- reducing or lessening the teacher’s allocation of low and foundation classes;
- providing the teacher with support in the classroom and counselling;
- directing the teacher to take sick leave where appropriate; and
- monitoring the teacher’s condition when he returned to work and making enquiries about his well being.