A former postal sorter is entitled to damages against An Post over its failure as her employer to address bullying and harassment of her by her co-workers, a High Court judge has ruled.
The amount of damages for Catherine Hurley (53), White’s Cross, Co Cork, will be assessed later by Mr Justice Paul McDermott who accepted her health suffered as a result of her experience.
Ms Hurley sued An Post for negligence, breach of duty and breach of contract, arising from being ostracised by work colleagues at a sorting office at Little Island, Cork, after a male colleague was suspended.
The suspension followed an incident on July 26th 2006 involving Ms Hurley and because of his “gross insubordination” towards management dealing with that incident, the judge said.
Ms Hurley said the July 2006 incident happened when she was collecting postal packets with a trolley and asked her colleague, whom she knew only by sight, to pass items to her.
She said he looked at her, appeared “really angry with bulging eyes”, fired some packets into the trolley, came very close to her and told her aggressively not to “f.. tell me what to do”, the judge noted. She said his nose was touching hers as he uttered the words, she was afraid he was about to head-butt her and “afraid of her life” of him.
She met her supervisor immediately afterwards, filled in an incident report, was driven home and was unable to return to work until August 15th by which stage the colleague had been suspended.
On her return, most of her fellow employees treated her as if she had not spoken and when she told a human resources manager the next day of being ignored, she was told it would “die down”.
She said the situation worsened, on some shifts she spoke to nobody, was made feel unwelcome to attend the Christmas staff party and eventually ceased work in September 2008.
Mr Justice McDermott found the conduct of Ms Hurley’s co-workers towards her following her return undermined her right to dignity at work. She was subjected to “debilitating and humiliating” treatment on a daily basis of a “petty and mean” kind which had the accumulated effect of undermining her health and ability to return to work.
Her co-workers were primarily responsible for this and her employer allowed it “continue unchecked” and offered her “minimal” support in dealing with a deteriorating situation.
Management were faced with a very angry work force which had stopped work and circulated a petition in support of their suspended colleague who, he noted, had been subject to complaints over three earlier, less serious, incidents not related to Ms Hurley.
She was left by her employer to “ride out the storm” in the hope it would pass but it did not.
An Post, as employer, was liable for the bullying and harassment experienced form her co-workers in the course of her employment of which it was aware and had a duty to address but failed to do so in any meaningful way.
He accepted her health suffered as a result of what happened and neck spasm and other symptoms described by her were the likely product of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The health damage was reasonably foreseeable by An Post which failed until July/August 2008 to invoke a code providing for a formal investigative process for complaints of workplace bullying and harassment.
That was “too little and too late” for Ms Hurley.