INSIGHT

Court finds employment only needs to be one significant cause of a workplace injury to hold employer liable

By Alana Perna
Employment & Safety

In brief 2 min read

An injured employee has been awarded damages in circumstances where it was unclear whether the root cause of his injury was his employment, personal leisure activities, or a degenerative disease.

Key takeaways

  • A South Australian Tribunal has confirmed that employment only needs to be a significant contributing cause of the injury to hold the employer responsible. It does not need to be the only cause.
  • The Tribunal also said that an injured employee does not need to prove that their injury was caused or contributed to by employment to the standard of complete 'scientific satisfaction'. Rather, it need only be supported by expert evidence.

Background

The applicant, Mark Pawlowski, worked as a physical educator at the Central Adelaide Local Health Network (CALHN) for 35 years. Now 62 years old, Mr Pawlowski's employment required substantial physical activity, including demonstrating weight training programs, conducting kayaking sessions, leading mountain-bike riding, and bushwalking while carrying packs of up to 50 kilograms.

In 2015, Mr Pawlowski experienced an onset of pain in his right hip, which escalated to chronic osteoarthritis in 2018, requiring a hip replacement. When he applied to CALHN for workers' compensation in 2018, it was rejected on the basis that:

  • there was not enough evidence to conclude that the weights he lifted were heavy or lifted frequently enough to cause hip osteoarthritis; and
  • osteoarthritis is a progressive, degenerative disease, and there was not enough evidence to conclude that employment was an 'important or influential' cause, given he participated in physical activities outside of work.

The decision

CALHN argued that Mr Pawlowski needed to demonstrate that his hip osteoarthritis was caused by his employment to a standard of 'scientific satisfaction'. The Tribunal did not accept this argument, finding instead that the employee did not have to prove to that level that the injury was caused by his employment in order to be awarded compensation.

The Tribunal accepted the expert evidence that Mr Pawlowski's employment was a significant contributing cause of his injury, deciding that it only needed to be 'one of several significant causes' for the employment to be found responsible for the injury. Therefore, it did not matter if Mr Pawlowski's personal fitness regime and leisure activities contributed to his right hip osteoarthritis, but, in the event that they did, they were found to have contributed less than his employment.

Mr Pawlowski was awarded damages for the reimbursement of his total right hip replacement and for weekly periods of incapacity for the 10 weeks following the procedure.