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Public servants come to blows over coffee

A squabble between two Canberra public servants over a mid-morning cup of coffee that led to one man punching the other has ended in a bid for worker’s compensation.

But the Administrative Appeals Tribunal threw out Michael Ralser’s claim for compensation after being punched by a colleague at a Civic cafe.

The tribunal did find that Mr Ralser suffered a separate psychological injury stemming from his work several months later and should be compensated for that injury.

Mr Ralser and four colleagues at the Australian Taxation Office were at a Civic cafe in December 2009 when a dispute arose over a mug of black coffee.

Both Mr Ralser and his then-colleague Dieter Tietz tried to claim the hot drink. Mr Ralser grabbed the coffee but Mr Tietz said it belonged to him because he had ordered first.

The tribunal found Mr Ralser stuck his fingers into the drink and flicked coffee at Mr Tietz, prompting the other man to punch him in the arm. In a judgement handed down last week , tribunal members Simon Webb and Bernard Hughson noted Mr Ralser did not respond to the punch and conversation quickly resumed.


‘‘No one left the table until the coffee break came to its natural end and they departed as a group and returned to work,’’ they wrote.

In 2010, Mr Ralser lodged a claim for compensation for mental and physical injuries, claiming Mr Tietz had bullied and harassed him in addition to punching him.

It was rejected by worker’s compensation body Comcare and he sought a review in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The tribunal heard he was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder arising from his belief that he was being harassed at work.

Mr Ralser also complained of a dead arm, persistent pain and a whiplash or jarring injury to his spine as a result of the punch.

Dr Hughson and Mr Webb dismissed the claim for the coffee break punch, saying the injury had not occurred in the course of Mr Ralser’s employment and there was no basis for compensation.

But they did find Mr Ralser had suffered a psychological ailment in March 2010, some months after the coffee break incident, which had arisen out of his perception that he was being bullied in the workplace.

They ordered the matter to be returned to Comcare to determine Mr Ralser’s compensation.