Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious Trauma is a known occupational hazard for a number of professions.  Often these are:

  • First responders – police, ambulance and fire fighters;
  • Doctors and other health professionals (particularly nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists);
  • Lawyers
  • Social workers.

So what is Vicarious Trauma.  The Vicarious Trauma Institute (USA) defines it as the “indirect exposure to trauma through a first-hand account or narrative of a traumatic event”.

This is an interesting topic and there have been recent developments in this area.

It is well established that employers have a duty of care to their employees to provide a safe working environment and that duty is non-delegable.  That means that employers cannot escape liability by suggesting that someone or some other company was responsible for a certain aspect of training, safety, provision of suitable plant and equipment.

In certain settings, employers may be liable to their employees if they fail to have appropriate Vicarious Trauma training and policies to manage this high occupational risk.

However, it may not be as straightforward as it seems.

Let’s do a case review: –


Hegarty v Queensland Ambulance Service [2007] QCA 366. 

This case involved a Queensland Ambulance Officer who developed a severe PTSD and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a consequence of his work as an ambulance officer.  There were a number of quite traumatic and distressing scenes in this Mr Hegarty was required to attend.

The case looked at the QAS program known as “Priority One” which was a program developed in May 1992 and progressively introduced.  This was in recognition of the occupational stress in emergency services personnel.

It was confirmed that an employer has a duty of care to an employee in respect of any psychiatric injury that develops which is “reasonably foreseeable”.  Mr Hegarty won his case at trial, however on Appeal in the Queensland Court of Appeal he lost his appeal.

Some of the issues that leant against the liability of QAS to Mr Hegarty in this instance were:-

  • He remained proficient in his duties;
  • He remained ambitious;
  • His apparent physical problems and reasonable requests for a transfer

The Court found that it would have been difficult to see how a “layman” in the position of Mr Hegarty’s supervisors, even if they were trained, could have alerted his supervisors (thereby his employer) that his cluster of complaints as a “signal” that he was not coping with the stress of his job.

This was a sad outcome for Mr Hegarty and this case has led the way particularly in Queensland against the protection for vicarious trauma for our emergency services personnel.


Written by

Courtney Lockett is a solicitor admitted in the Law Court of Queensland and the High Court of Australia with years of law practice in Brisbane and Townsville. She has experience in various specialised areas of law such as property law, business and commercial law, family law, criminal law, succession law, and litigation. Click here to learn more about Courtney or follow her on Linkedin

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