The Victorian Education Department could face a wave of law suits after a judge awarded about $1.2 million in damages to a former teacher who developed chronic depression after he was forced to teach the worst behaved students.
Peter Doulis 48, sued the state for negligence, saying he had suffered a mental breakdown after he was allocated an unduly heavy workload of "feral" classes at Werribee Secondary College between 1998 and 2004.
In 2000, Werribee Secondary College divided its years 8, 9 and 10 classes into five streams - accelerated, high achievers, medium achievers, low achievers and foundation.
Mr Doulis told the Supreme Court the bottom classes included students who had ADHD, autism, dyslexia and acquired brain injuries, while most of the other students were very badly behaved.
Supreme Court Justice Timothy Ginnane ruled on Friday that the school breached its duty of care to Mr Doulis because it did not reduce the number of difficult classes he had to teach or monitor or support him when he returned to work .
Solicitor Michael Magazanik from Slater and Gordon Lawyers said the decision was important because it recognised that teachers who were really struggling had to be supported by their schools.
"We had plenty of calls from teachers during the trial and I suspect there are significant numbers of teachers in Peter's position," Mr Magazanik said.
"It will force a lot of principals and schools around the state to sit up and take notice because the judge made it quite clear that Werribee Secondary College completely failed Peter Doulis.
"They knew his mental health was deteriorating and they did absolutely nothing for him. They just left him there to sink and he did and he has had to wear the appalling cost of that for 10 years now."
Mr Doulis was sworn at and abused by students in his classes.
He once broke up an incident where a student was holding another student down in the corridor and singeing his jumper with a flame thrower made out of a can of deodorant and a lighter. Another student was suspended for swearing, splitting open a student's head and breaking a window.
Justice Ginnane said that Mr Doulis told the school about his difficulties with his workload in a meeting with principal Steve Butyn and assistant principals William Hatzis and Gregory Lentini in September 2003.
"I do not consider that a reasonable person would have relied on Mr Doulis to fix the problem himself by the measures that he proposed, of lessening his non-teaching duties or seeking to teach elsewhere."
Justice Ginnane said it was "reasonably foreseeable" that Mr Doulis might suffer a psychiatric injury because of his teaching responsibilities and that the state had owed him a duty to take care to avoid him from developing the condition.
However Justice Ginnane did not believe a number of Mr Doulis' other claims, including allegations that another teacher had sexually abused a student, and that other teachers at the college had bullied him, which he said affected his credibility as a witness. The judge said he ruled on the case based on fact findings supported by other witnesses.
The judge awarded Mr Doulis an estimated $1.2 million in damages. This included $300,000 for pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment in life, $466,433 for past economic loss and about $500,000 for future economic loss.
The exact quantity of future economic loss will be decided at a later hearing
Mr Doulis told The Saturday Age the finding acknowledged the stress that teachers were put under and the support they needed.
"The support that the finding does give to teachers in the future is valuable."
He said he had received training for teaching gifted students at the school but nothing to help him with the most challenging students.
Werribee Secondary College's acting principal, Kevin O'Neil said parents sent their students to the school because of the streaming model, which had led to it performing higher than similar schools in the VCE.
"All of our teachers are given classes across levels and we do not disproportionately allocate any teachers to any one level. We no longer allow teachers to request to teach at only one level."
Justice Ginnane noted that Mr Doulis was only one of 100 teachers at the College and that his experiences related to events that happened more than a decade ago.
"The evidence at trial established that the College is now one of the finest schools in the western suburbs of Melbourne," the judge said.