Australia's Age Newspaper Wins Landmark PTSD Case

An Australian photojournalist has failed in her bid to sue The Age newspaper for damages over her post-traumatic stress disorder.

The award-winning photographer, who can only be referred to as AZ, claimed the newspaper had failed to provide a safe workplace and had breached its responsibility to care for her mental health.

The case, closely watched by Australian media, is believed to be the first involving a journalist’s claim of occupational PTSD to go to trial anywhere in the world and could have established a precedent for how media companies care for and respond to employees who may suffer psychological injury.

But a State of Victoria Supreme Court judge yesterday ruled against AZ, finding that she had not proved negligence by the Age.

“In my view, the defendant had an adequate culture and system of support, reallocation and counselling for its staff and, in particular, the plaintiff,” said Ms Justice J. McMillan. “I am not satisfied that any of the steps that the plaintiff alleges should have been taken would have prevented or ameliorated her risk of injury.”

The photographer was a 25-year news veteran and winner of the Walkley Award, Australia’s most prestigious journalism prize. In 2003 she was assigned to a series marking the first anniversary of the Bali Bombing, the deadliest terrorist attack in Indonesian history which left 202 people dead, including 88 Australians.

Following the assignment, in which she worked intensively on 21 stories with relatives of the Australian victims, AZ said she began to suffer depression, anxiety and PTSD. She often ended in tears from the assignment and began suffering nightmares.

Since 2005, she had been “totally incapacitated,” said her barrister Tim Tobin SC. She was sacked in 2007 after spending two years off sick on WorkCover.

In her decision, Justice McMillan conceded that AZ’s “injury is severe and is likely to prevent her from engaging in any work in the foreseeable future. It appears certain she will never be able to work as a photographer again.”

Lawyers for the Age claimed that at the time the paper was at the forefront of staff care and had an Employee Assistance Program in place. But Mr Tobin said the Age did not have a proper peer-support program in place where colleagues could look out for others affected by traumatic assignments.

The judge said she took the view that initiatives such as having a peer support program in place would not have altered the situation or ensured AZ was identified (as having psychological difficulties) or referred to counselling at an earlier stage.

She noted that it was not common for media outlets to have peer support programs in place in 2003. Nor was there any basis “to suggest that a reasonable employer… in 2003 should have implemented peer support or a similar program as a method of protecting staff from the risk of psychological injury.

“I consider that any of the measures put forth by the plaintiff would not necessarily have meant that the problems experienced by her would have been ‘picked up’ by peers or management.”

During the case, an application was made by AZ’s lawyers that Justice McMillan stand down on the basis of apprehended bias. She refused the application.

It is understood AZ’s legal team is considering an appeal.