Gravely ill worker wins $238K general protections claim
A general protections claim has seen a stone mason win $238,231 after his ruthless employer dismissed him due to his terminal illness. The 43-year-old had been diagnosed with silicosis – a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling dangerous levels of silica dust – which he’d developed over his 25 years of service with the employer. Gravely ill worker wins $238K is worth reading so you know your rights. Information is power, also a lot of employees settle claims for far less than what is possible available to them.
Ruthless discrimination and dismissal
This unlawful dismissal case – Ruttley v Willis Brothers Installation (Qld) Pty Ltd  – is a shocking example of an employer ruthlessly discriminating against an employee based on their disability. The employee was forced to continue working to excessive levels and was bullied mercilessly for his disease. He was also denied his pay and entitlements, before finally being dismissed. Let’s look at the events of this frankly unbelievable case and how the Federal court came to a rightful decision.
Timothy Ruttley had commenced working for Gold Coast based Willis Bros Installations in 1997 as an 18-year-old apprentice stone mason. The company had been established by Duncan and Justin Wills in the same year. Mr Ruttley worked 12-hour days inside a factory grinding and cutting stone bench tops.
Not only was Mr Ruttley not paid overtime, but for the first 12 months of his apprenticeship, he wasn’t provided with a face mask. Nor was it mandatory to wear one. He finished his apprenticeship in 2001, when Willis Bros installed industrial ceiling fans to help suck silica dust from the factory floor. Key to this general protections case was that despite these belated safety measures, the factory in which Mr Ruttley worked was still dangerously risky to his health. The fans lacked filters, so airborne dust particles still circulated in the air.
Employee diagnosed with terminal lung disease amid industry epidemic
By 2013, Mr Ruttley had been promoted to the position of director and had become a significant shareholder in Willis Bros, along with its founders Duncan and Justin. He owned a 17% stake in the company and was now paid the same annual salary as the brothers following an agreement made in 2013.
Fast forward to 2017 and Work Health and Safety Queensland started to increase their inspections of stone benchtop factories. This came after a number of stone benchtop workers were diagnosed with silicosis. Work Safe Queensland soon ordered all those diagnosed with silicosis to cease performing work in an environment containing silica dust. This saw 48 workers prohibited from attending work by the end of 2018.
In November 2018, Mr Ruttley underwent a CT scan and was diagnosed with lymph node silicosis. In his general protections court hearing, Mr Ruttley said that the doctor told him that he had a “terminal disease which I was required to monitor and manage for the rest of my life.”
The doctor told Mr Ruttley that it was difficult to predict his prognosis. He outlined treatment options for him, including a lung transplant and a procedure to flush out the lungs to remove the silica dust. Mr Ruttley said that the diagnosis left him overwhelmed and scared about his future.What’s more, Mr Ruttley’s brother Simon, who also worked at Willis Bros, was also diagnosed with silicosis.
“Get back on the f**king tools:” Employers insensitive response to terminal diagnosis
Shortly after his diagnosis, Mr Ruttley made a worker’s compensation claim with WorkCover, which was accepted in January 2019. In his general protections claim, Mr Ruttley stated that despite his life-threatening diagnosis, he continued to work long hours as December was a busy period. Due to a staff shortage, he was required to reschedule jobs and extend installations, which caused significant irritation to Willis Bros founder Duncan Willis.
After speaking to a customer about a delayed job, Mr Willis went to Mr Ruttley and told him to “get back on the tools” to complete the job. When Mr Ruttley said he couldn’t “because of his silicosis,” Mr Willis simply yelled “get back on the f….g tools.”
“What worries me is f***king you guys with silicosis:” The employment relationship deteriorates
In his general protections court hearing, Mr Ruttley said that he and his brother Simon met with Mr Willis in June 2019 to discuss the business. In particular, the fact that many employees were on leave due to silicosis. During this conversation, Mr Willis expressed his very insensitive views on this situation, sharing his frustration with the lack of workers available.
“I’ll tell you I will be honest with you what worries me is f***king you guys with silicosis,” Duncan told Mr Ruttley and his brother. “I’m the only one here without it. Everyone is pointing their f**king finger at me. F**king poor Luke’s got it. You guys have got it.” This quote is just one among many in which Mr Willis abused Mr Ruttley for his silicosis diagnosis. In his general protections hearing, Mr Ruttley said Mr Willis often referred to him as a “f**kwit” or “f**king idiot,” causing him to feel belittled.
In June 2019, Simon was made redundant and as a result, Mr Ruttley’s workload increased. He asked Duncan for assistance, but he simply ordered him to “get back on the tools” despite being aware of his silicosis diagnosis. Mr Ruttley continued to suffer from extreme stress due to the abuse and increased workload.
“How are these dogs sitting at home nothing wrong with them?:” Employer continues his abuse
Key to this general protections case was Mr Willis’ general attitude toward Mr Ruttley’s silicosis diagnosis, as well as that of other workers. In one exchange, he said to Mr Ruttley: “how are these dogs sitting at home nothing wrong with them?”
Mr Ruttley responded that the workers “did have something wrong with them.” Mr Willis simply ignored the reply and continued making derogatory remarks. In his general protections claim, Mr Ruttley said he felt stressed at work due to the way Mr Willis was treating him, along with his excessive workload.
The deterioration in Mr Ruttley’s relationship with Mr Willis culminated on 14 January 2020. On that morning, Mr Willis entered Mr Ruttley’s office without greeting him and said: “I want my f**king shares back you hear me.” He then loudly slammed the desk with his hand, causing it to rattle and startle Mr Ruttley. Mr Willis then exited his office without uttering another word. Hours later, Mr Ruttley received an email from Mr Willis requesting that he surrender the company car driven by his wife.
What happened next was a key moment in this general protections case. Deeply disturbed by what had just happened, Mr Ruttley went to see his doctor. The doctor issued him with a medical certificate that said he was “suffering from workplace stress and will be unfit for duty up to and including 14 February 2020.”
Mr Employee is denied pay, leave and is finally dismissed
When Mr Ruttley emailed the medical certificate to Mr Willis, it set in motion a number of events that took place up until his dismissal in May 2020. During this time, Mr Willis:
- Requested Mr Ruttley surrender his other company car and told him that Willis Bros wouldn’t pay his licence allowance while he was on sick leave.
- Reduced Mr Ruttley’s wage, disconnected his mobile phone and cancelled his fuel card.
- Stopped paying Mr Ruttley’s weekly wage. He also claimed Mr Ruttley had used up all his accrued leave.
- When asked by Mr Ruttley for a conciliation of his leave entitlements, he refused to honour this request.
- Removed Mr Ruttley as a director of Willis Bros from 1 May 2020.
Federal Court rules on general protections case
Mr Ruttley’s general protections case was heard in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia in August 2022. Mr Ruttley alleged that Willis Bros had dismissed him for two reasons. Namely, because he had:
- Exercised a workplace right in submitting a workers compensation claim.
- Exercised a workplace right by making a complaint or inquiry regarding payment of his leave entitlements.
- Suffered from a physical disability. Namely, lymph node silicosis.
Under the general protections provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009, exercising a workplace right is a reason that employers are prohibited from using to dismiss an employee. Discriminating against an employee due to their disability is also a prohibited reason.
Judge Tonkin found that Mr Willis had attempted to exit Mr Ruttley from the company upon learning that he couldn’t continue working due to his diagnosis. And she found that Mr Willis dismissed him due to his physical disability. Willis Bros was ordered to pay Mr Ruttley $162,631. This comprised of $142,631 for historic economic loss and $20,000 for distress, hurt and humiliation.
Employer forced to pay Mr Ruttley a further $75,600 for general protections breaches
In November 2022, Judge Tonkin made her decision concerning how Willis Bros should be fined for its general protections breaches. With regard to the company dismissing Mr Ruttley due to his disability and making a worker’s compensation claim, Jude Tonkin fined Willis Bros $44,100. She said that Mr Willis had acted in a “deliberate not inadvertent” manner and also that he had no remorse. She said that he had “maintained he was justified in terminating [Mr Rutely’s] employment.”
In regard to Willis Bros taking adverse action against Mr Ruttley after he inquired about his leave entitlements, Judge Tonkin fined the company $31,500. She said that the combined fine of $75,600 “should be one that deters” Willis Bros from mistreating any employees who develop silicosis in the future. In all, Mr Ruttley’s general protections claim saw Willis Bros pay him a combined $238,231.
Conclusion to: Gravely ill worker wins $238K general protections claim
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