In April 2017, the Full Court of the Supreme Court heard an appeal from TAFE, South Australia’s largest vocational education and training provider, after the Full Bench of the South Australian Employment Tribunal overturned a workers compensation claim rejection by TAFE.
While reviewing the matter, the Supreme Court considered the question of when employment is a significant contributing cause of an injury. The Return to Work Act 2014 requires that the Act only applies to an injury if it arises from employment. An injury arises from employment if the employment was a significant contributing cause of an injury.
What does it mean for employment to be a significant contributing cause of an injury? We review the recent appeal and decision of the State of South Australia vs Roberts in the Supreme Court to explore what it means when an injury arises from employment.
Mrs Roberts was a full-time lecturer and hairdresser employed by TAFE. In October 2015 as part of her employment, Mrs Roberts volunteered to teach hairdressing to Aboriginal women at Oodnadatta. Her accommodation was authorised and paid for by TAFE. The accommodation was unsatisfactory as it was not mosquito proof. Mrs Roberts was bitten by mosquitos that carried a virus which caused the contraction of inflammatory polyarthritis. This virus is not common and not all mosquitos carry the virus which caused the inflammation.
A claim for workers compensation lodged by Mrs Roberts for the aggravation of the inflammatory polyarthritis was rejected by TAFE. Deputy President Judge Calligeros of the South Australian Employment Tribunal overturned the rejection and ordered that Mrs Roberts’ claim be accepted. TAFE appealed to the Full Bench of the South Australian Employment Tribunal and the Full Bench upheld the decision of Deputy President Judge Calligeros. TAFE appealed to the full Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Decision
On 17 April 2017, the Full Court of the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal by TAFE.
The Court found that being required to live in the accommodation in Oodnadatta was in the course of Mrs Roberts’ employment.
The Court also had to consider whether the employment was a significant contributing cause and ruled:
- The illness was caused by mosquito bites.
- The mosquito bites occurred in unsatisfactory accommodation in a remote location.
- The accommodation was arranged or paid for by TAFE.
- Mrs Roberts was present at the remote location for the sole purpose of carrying out her duties.
The Court concluded that employment was a significant contributing cause of the injury.
The Full Court of the Supreme Court ruled that employment will be a significant cause of an injury if it is an important or influential cause.
Importance of the Decision
This is the first decision by the highest court in South Australia on the meaning of the new test for whether work injuries are compensable. This was described by the Minister for Industrial Relations, the Honourable John Rau MP, in his speech to parliament to introduce the Return To Work Act 2014 as:
“The gateway provision, which is the provision that gives a person the right to participate in the scheme beyond that point.”
In my view, this decision is a victory for common sense.
Each case will have to be considered on its own facts but if employment can be seen as one of the important or influential causes of physical injury, the claim should be accepted.
We will be watching to see how this decision is applied to psychological injury cases where the test is that employment must be “the significant contributing cause” rather than “a significant contributing cause”.