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Munt v Devon County Council, Plymouth County Court, 14 January 2005

21 January 2005
The issues

Psychiatric Injury – Stress – Claimant Sent To Coventry – Vicarious Liability

The facts

The Claimant worked for the Defendant County Council as a Care and Support Assistant at a centre for the care of special needs adults. She had been previously employed as a Care and Support Assistant at another Devon centre where she had fallen out with her Line Manager. It had been decided that she would not be returning to work at that centre and was therefore reallocated to Highbridge House. Unfortunately she fell out there also with her Line Manager and other members of staff. She alleged that she was excluded from conversations and isolated from her colleagues.

She suffered psychiatric ill health as a result and went off on gardening leave. There were difficulties associated with her return and her Line Manager threatened to resign at one point if she were returned to the House. Senior members of the Defendant and Social Services Department involved themselves and counsellors were recruited to assist in a facilitation process intended to ease the Claimant back into work. The facilitation process that was initially envisaged and agreed (involving individual interviews of each of the Claimant’s work colleagues) did not take place because of the work colleagues’ initial reluctance to involve themselves. The Claimant returned to work in any event at the Defendant’s request (although she had also previously indicated an urgency in her own need to return to work) and subsequently after a short period of time – 10 days) went off sick again as a result of alleged work related stress caused by her alleged ostracisation. She did not return to work with the Defendants.

At Trial her case amounted to two specific allegations – namely that she was ostracised by her colleagues for which conduct the Defendant was vicariously liable and secondly, that as a result of the failure to put in place the agreed or an appropriate facilitation package that the Claimant became stressed and psychiatrically ill.

The decision

As a matter of fact the Claimant had not been bullied or ostracised by her colleagues.

1. She had however an honest perception that this was the way in which she had been treated.

2. It was common ground that the Claimant was psychiatrically vulnerable and that the Defendant was on notice of that vulnerability. It was further common ground that she had gone off work the second time suffering from a psychiatric illness.

3. The Defendant had put in process steps to facilitate the Claimant’s return although these were not the “agreed” steps previously discussed with the Claimant. There had been however a number of meetings; counsellors had been recruited; and senior members of the Defendant County Council had involved themselves in the process. Individual employees had been told at a meeting of their need and duty to co-operate with the Claimant and to act professionally at all times in the interests of the clients.

4. This was not an unreasonable process and it could not be said that the Defendant was in breach of duty for not going through the “agreed” process particularly where it was not possible for them to guarantee the co-operation in the process of other members of staff.

5. Although the psychiatric evidence differed between the parties the Court preferred the psychiatric evidence of the Defendant to the extent that had the facilitation process that had been agreed been put in place, on a balance of probabilities it is likely that the Claimant’s breakdown would have occurred in any event as a consequence of her own perceptions.

Judgment for the Defendant.

For further information about the claim, please contact Mark Fowles (01392 288328) Email: markfowles@veitchpenny.co.uk

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