Supervisor assault and subsequent management leads to employer liability

30 May 2023

An employer was vicariously liable for the intentional unlawful assault by one employee on another, and for subsequent management conduct in failing to protect the assaulted employee after reporting the assault.

In issue

  • The plaintiff sought damages for negligence and/or breach of contract for his employer’s alleged failure to uphold its duty of care to avoid the foreseeable risk of psychological injury to the plaintiff. The issues to be decided were (1) whether the employer was liable for the direct illegal conduct of its employee (2) whether the employer was liable for the subsequent treatment of the plaintiff by its employees and (3) which events were causative of the plaintiff’s injury.

The background

The plaintiff was employed as a custodian corrections officer by Queensland Corrective Services at the Woodford Correctional Centre. The plaintiff commenced employment from about mid-August 2014 and ceased employment in March 2018 (having been in receipt of workers’ compensation payments from 9 March 2017).

On 22 January 2017, the plaintiff was physically assaulted by his immediate supervisor, in the context of a disagreement about a prisoner. The plaintiff alleged that his supervisor 'punched him in the guts' and then cautioned a nearby group of officers that he would do the same to them if he were challenged. The plaintiff was unsure about what to do and spoke to another guard about the incident. He decided he would speak to the supervisor but did not get the chance to, and then had several scheduled days off. Upon his return, the plaintiff was approached by the section manager, who asked the plaintiff to make a report about the incident. The plaintiff provided a report on 2 February 2017. He alleged that upon his return, he was met with constant remarks from other officers about him having 'dobbed' in his supervisor, and he was ridiculed for doing so. The plaintiff was referred to EAP but alleged that no other action was taken by his employer.

The decision at trial

The court found that the conduct of the plaintiff’s supervisor amounted to a wrongful form of management. In that regard, the court said that the employment of the supervisor provided not only the opportunity but also the occasion for his assault of the plaintiff, in the sense that he was able to take advantage of his position of authority in respect of the plaintiff. Therefore, the supervisor’s wrongful act was not merely a manifestation of some emotional outburst between the supervisor and the plaintiff, but rather, a wrongful form of management of a subordinate by his superior.

In relation to the subsequent conduct of the plaintiff’s employer, the court noted that the employer was under a duty to take reasonable care to protect the plaintiff from the remarks made by his colleagues, and to reasonably support him. The court found that the employer’s policies were lacking in that regard and more support ought to have been provided to the plaintiff in the circumstances.

The court therefore held that the cumulative effect of both the punching incident, and the subsequent treatment of the plaintiff, contributed to his psychiatric injury. The court found that the employer was liable for both breaches, basing its decision on the medical evidence. The court assessed damages as per the following table.

Head of Damage


General Damages


Past Economic Loss


Interest on Past Economic Loss


Past Superannuation


Future Economic Loss


Future Superannuation


Past Special Damages


Interest on Past Special Damages


Future Special Damages




Less WorkCover refund




Implications for you

This is an important decision which highlights the fact that employers may be found liable for the wrongful conduct of their employees, in circumstances where the employment itself gives rise to the opportunity and occasion for such wrongful conduct.

Mason v State of Queensland [2023] QDC 80

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