Duty of care requires an employer to reprimand and counsel bullies

In Wolters v The University of the Sunshine Coast [2013] QCA 228, a decision delivered by the Court of Appeal of the Queensland Supreme Court yesterday, their Honours unanimously decided that the University should (through its Vice Chancellor) have reprimanded and counselled an employee about the bullying of a more junior employee.

The case proved expensive for the University. Although the appellant Ms Wolters had a pyrrihc victory at first instance (a $100 nominal damages award), on appeal she was awarded $364,008.06 plus costs. 

The court found that "…to discharge its duty of care, the respondent, via Professor Thomas, ought to have reprimanded Mr Bradley" in connection with his earlier treatment of another employee. The judgement further found that "…it was more likely than not that had the respondent taken appropriate action to reprimand and counsel Mr Bradley, the incident with the appellant would not have occurred".

This case is not only an important one in clarifying the employer's duty of care in the workplace, it may also prove to be a pivotal one in the development of the emerging specialty of education law.

In this connection, if a university owes a duty of care to protect its employees, it almost certainly has a similar duty of care to its students. 

Thus the decision in this case suggests universities may also need to review the manner in which it responds to student complaints about the way they have been treated by their teacher.

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