Optus in $14.5 million bullying case as expert says media coverage a key weapon in big claims

A former Optus executive is suing the telecommunications company for $14.5 million in damages based on allegations of ”bullying, suppression and victimisation” in a claim which legal experts say is making tactical use of media coverage.

Kerry Morrison’s claim against Optus which was filed last week in the Federal Court relates to bullying claims but follows on from large sexual harassment claims by Christina Rich and Kristy Fraser-Kirk.

Beth Gaze, associate professor of law at Melbourne University, told SmartCompany $14.5 million was “well above” anything anyone has obtained in Australia in similar cases.

Gaze says the only claim she is aware of that obtained a substantial payout was Christina Rich, a partner at PwC who made a sexual harassment claim against the accounting firm.

The case was settled for an undisclosed amount but the claim was for several million as Rich had been a tax partner at the firm and very highly paid.

More recently Kristy Fraser-Kirk claimed $37 million in a sexual harassment case against the chief executive of David Jones, Mark McInnes.

“That introduced a new tactic because usually when you bring a sexual harassment claim you have to go to conciliation first but what the lawyers did is brought a breach of contract claim so they could get it straight into the court,” says Gaze.

“This meant they could publicise it and bring pressure to bear in settling the case.”

“With the McInnes case there was no real litigation besides the statement of claim being filed, a lot of it was really a media campaign and that was enough to get the board of David Jones to say ‘He has to get out’.”

“That is the tactic, the use of the media.”

Gaze says if the $14.5 million claim by Morrison ever made it to a hearing it is likely a court would be critical of the amount of damages claimed.

“I suspect they would be, if it ever got as far as a hearing, but the number of these cases that go to a hearing is reasonably small,” says Gaze.

“Mainly the respondent will want to settle it as they will not want a public hearing airing their dirty laundry.”

Gaze estimates that Morrison’s lawyers, Harmers Workplace Lawyers, claimed aggravated damages in order to claim the high amount of $14.5 million.

“The courts have said that you can’t actually get punitive damages in this sort of case but you can get aggravated damages if the conduct of the respondent is to increase the harm and hurt of the whole process,” says Gaze.

Elizabeth Greene, spokesperson for Optus, said, “Given this is the subject of legal proceedings, we are only able to confirm that we will vigorously defend our position against what we believe to be unjustified claims.”

SmartCompany contacted Harmers Workplace Lawyers for comment however they failed to respond prior to publication.


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