A Lawyer For "AZ" Speaks Out

Following the landmark PTSD case in which a journalist referred to as "AZ" sought damages against Australia's The Age newspaper, Bree Knoester, one of the plaintiff's lawyers, reflects on the case, which was ultimately won by The Age. Perhaps injuries are not preventable at all," Knoester writes. "What is clear, particularly through the work of Dart, is that there are systems that can be put in place by media organisations."

Lawyer Bree Knoester has practised in personal injury litigation for twelve years – first as a law clerk in a national personal injury firm, then as a solicitor in the insurance litigation group in an international firm and since 2006, as a barrister at the Victorian Bar practising exclusively in this field.  From March 2010 to October 2013, she was involved in the first case involving a psychiatrically injured journalist brought against a media organisation.

In that case, an award-winning photojournalist, who can only be referred to as AZ, failed in her bid to sue to Age newspaper for damages over her post-traumatic stress disorder. The case was believed to be the first involving as journalist’s claim of occupational PTSD to go to trial anywhere in the world. But a Victorian Supreme Court Judge found she had not proved negligence by the paper in that it failed to provide a safe workplace.

Ms. Knoester recently wrote about the case for Precedent, the Journal of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, (August 2013). Though that article is not online, a slightly condensed version of it is reprinted with Knoester and the JALA's permission here.

Among Knoester's reflections: 

“It was clear from the research undertaken by Dart and information obtained in preparation for the case that working as a journalist exposed one to the best and worst of life.  In discussions with experts in the field of exposure to trauma in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, the legal team with which I worked learned about stigma, the effect of culture within a media organisation, the benefits of social support and peer support programs and the prevalence of journalists suffering from the effects of exposure to trauma.

“One of the challenges for the injured journalist who commences personal injury litigation is the need to establish that a psychological injury is preventable if particular action is taken by an employer.  But psychological injuries do not have a neat start and end date like a physical injury might. What particular car crash aftermath witnessed by a journalist accelerated their depression or what assignment was the final straw?  What if there are personal psychological issues also at play or a pre-existing condition? Similarly, if an organisation had responded to the journalist suffering the effects of exposure to trauma at a particular point in time, would that have prevented the injury from worsening or was the trajectory already set?

“Our attempt to answer these questions required input from experts in media, medicine, psychology and the law.  In circumstances where the job requires journalists to see the worst, perhaps injuries are not preventable at all.  What is clear, particularly through the work of Dart, is that there are systems that can be put in place by media organisations – that is a good first step.

“Since being involved in the case referred to above I have continued to think about the issues facing journalists in any potential personal injury litigation.  Litigating is public – and for good reason – but this makes the repercussions for an injured journalist pursuing a case even more significant.  Their former colleagues might sit in court, report on the case or hear about it on the news.  Reputations are affected and it is hard to imagine the injured journalist able to return to their pre-injury employer after litigation. These issues are in addition to the legal challenges of establishing foreseeability, breach of duty of care and causation. With this in mind, I wrote a recent article for Precedent – a national legal journal.  In writing the article for Precedent, I hoped to give some guidance to legal practitioners who may be required to act for a journalist in the future. I hope it also provides some insight for journalists and newsroom managers.”