By Blake O’Connor and Ugur Nedim
Imagine this: you are a decorated police officer with over forty years of experience.
Over the course of your distinguished career, you’ve been shot in the head, bitten by a man claiming to have HIV and asked to retrieve a baby’s corpse from a beach.
Repeated exposure to distressing events has caused you to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like any other worker, you would expect to be entitled to some sort of compensation, but a panel leaves you high and dry. Why? Because you are a “stoic and determined person”.
Think this couldn’t happen in Australia? Think again…
This is precisely what occurred to police officer Ron Fenton (pictured in 1984), who received 37 bullet fragments in his head and sustained a range of other injuries whilst performing his frontline duties.
Despite his medically proven PTSD, Mr Fenton was told by the Victorian Medical Panel (the VMP) that he was not sufficiently injured to receive compensation.
The VMP manages compensation claims in Victoria, and is the same panel that found the ex-wife of gangland mobster Carl Williams to be seriously mentally injured over the bashing death of her husband behind bars, leading to a $200,000 settlement in her favour.
Denied due to determination
Under Victorian compensation laws, it was necessary for Mr Fenton to prove he suffered 30% or more permanent psychiatric impairment over a 2008 incident where he was assaulted by a notorious criminal outside a Victorian nightclub.
But while the panel found that Mr Fenton was indeed 30% impaired, it went on to reduce this to 28% due to his perceived mental strength:
“[we] note that the physical injuries complained of were significant, but accepted the worker’s account that he was a stoic and determined person who tried to limit the impact of his physical symptoms on his emotional state”.
So in practical terms, Mr Fenton was denied compensation due to his strong will and perceived ability to bounce back from difficult situations.
Mr Fenton said he was dumbfounded by the decision.
“This is not unfair, it’s just cruel. How can they penalise me for a previous injury that I’d suffered doing the same job”, Mr Fenton said.
“And then they commend me for being stoic. Are they serious?”
He said he can’t even afford to replace his mobile phone, let alone pay a lawyer to appeal the decision.
Track record of refusing claims
Worksafe agent Gallagher Basset, who manages claims for the Victorian police, has come under fire for the lengths the organisation will go in order to reduce payouts or refuse claims altogether.
A report by Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass was particularly critical of the state’s scheme, finding it in urgent need of reform:
“We found cases in which agents were working the system to delay and deny seriously injured workers the financial compensation they were entitled … this affects people’s lives and the human side of this shouldn’t be forgotten”.
The report found that 20% of claims were being mishandled, deliberately delayed, or cancelled with minimal medical reasoning.
Fairfax media recently reported that insurance companies are increasingly using private investigators to find ways of reducing or denying payments to claimants.
It reported that in one case, investigators filmed a senior police officer cleaning bricks and used this as evidence against his claim of PTSD.
Closer to home…
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge has voiced similar concerns about our state’s compensation arrangements.
Mr Shoebridge has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the current state of affairs, saying it treats officers as “disposable assets who, once injured, are thrown on the scrap heap”.
The situation is in serious danger of affecting the morale of ‘good cops’, who put their hands up to deal with difficult situations and go out of their way to protect members of the public.
Photo credit: Victoria Police