A landmark decision of the High Court will greatly assist many injured workers with psychiatric injury, imposing common sense on employers’ whose employees are clearly at a heightened risk.
In its decision Kozarov v State of Victoria  HCA 12, the High Court held that there are some jobs in which the risk of psychiatric injury is an inherent part of the role, and employers need to be actively protecting employees from this risk.
Ms Kozarov was a solicitor working for the Department of Prosecutions in Victoria, specialising in prosecuting perpetrators of sexual abuse. The nature of the work and realities Ms Kozarov was exposed to, naturally, put Ms Kozarov at risk of psychiatric injury.
However, in an earlier decision of the High Court, Koehler v Cerebos (Australia) Ltd (2005) 222 CLR 44, on the interpretation that has prevailed until now, an employer was only in danger of breaching its duty of care, in circumstances where the injured worker sustained injuries during the normal course of their duties, if the injured worker had shown sufficient unequivocal signs and symptoms of being at risk of psychiatric injury. This interpretation led to regrettable outcomes in which paramedics, fire fighters, police officers, nurses and other front-line workers, let alone other high-stress occupations, had to prove that they had shown unequivocal signs and symptoms putting the employer on notice that their employee was at risk of psychiatric injury. Those that were unable to show that their employer was on notice, were denied compensation.
Ms Kozorov succeeded in persuading the High Court that her employer was negligent in failing to adequately protect her from the inherent risks to her mental health that was part-and-parcel of her very day work.
The Court held that just like occupations involving an obvious risk of physical injury, there are some occupations that obviously pose a risk of psychiatric injury to employees. In today’s society this hardly seems revelatory, but in the world of workers’ compensation law, this ruling will provide greater access to rights to many very deserving injured people.
As a society, we are still catching up to the fact that a mental health condition can be as traumatic and debilitating as any physical injury and the law is no different. There remains a long way to go to dismantle the biases that have built up in the law over decades of misunderstanding of psychiatric injury. This decision is further proof that the law is evolving to provide greater support for those suffering psychiatric injury. Our thoughts go out to all of those who fought for their rights that has culminated in the decision in Kozarov, particularly those for whom this decision has not come soon enough.