A woman who had worked at Coles Berkeley for more than a decade - during which time she was punched, had groceries thrown at her and was present when a customer threatened staff with an axe - has been denied a workers compensation claim by the supermarket giant.
This is despite multiple psychiatrists finding she suffered a psychological injury at work which had left her fearful of going outside.
The woman is now taking Coles to the Personal Injury Commission, in the hope of having Coles recognise the damage these incidents have caused.
*Sophia got her first job on the checkouts at Franklins in Warrawong when she was just 16.
"I was excited, I just loved it," she said.
Later moving to Bi Lo at Shellharbour, Sophia worked her way up to become deli manager, but it was always the customers that got her out of bed every morning to go to work.
"I loved going to work and interacting with the customers," she said.
"I've got a soft spot for the oldies."
Sophia went part time when she had her son, before shortly after moving to the Coles Berkeley store. Here she had her same love for her customers, but went back to working on the registers after her diagnosis with breast cancer.
During her time at Coles Berkeley, Sophia came to know all the sorts of people who did their shopping at the store.
"It was good - I got things thrown at me, but I expected it," she said. "I didn't expect to be punched."
In January last year, Sophia was working in the self-check area when she noticed a customer adding things to their bag without scanning them. Sophia told the customer that they needed to enter the right amount for the produce they were bagging, after which the customer became aggressive.
"She goes, 'If you don't shut your mouth, I'm going to down you.'"
The woman continued to swear at Sophia, who asked her to stop, and this led to a further reaction. Sophia called the store manager over who intervened. As Sophia went off to the break room, she turned around, and the woman punched her with both fists in her upper chest area.
"All I could see were my front toes going up in front of me, I was in shock," she said.
"Never in 34 years has that happened to me."
With the help of a customer nearby, Sophia got to her feet and ended her shift, but not before the woman who had just assaulted her came up to her and said words that would leave a mark.
"If I ever see you on the street, watch out."
The next day was Sophia's day off as she had a scheduled ultrasound for her cancer treatment. The subsequent day Sophia returned to work, but was a different person.
Customers would come up to her asking her what was wrong and in her personal life Sophia limited going out unless absolutely necessary. Throughout this period, however, she continued to work her shifts at Coles.
"To this day I haven't got a phone call from management, asking how I am."
On April 4 that year, Sophia was working at the register when one of the two men at the cigarette counter started to become aggressive. The man was screaming at the worker there, before going away after being asked to leave.
Shortly afterwards, the man returned with a metre-long axe with a blade about 20 centimetres in length.
"I just bolted, the only person I thought of was [my son]."
After this incident, Sophia could no longer go to work. Soon afterwards, Sophia lodged a claim for workers compensation.
In most workers compensation claims, workers would lodge a claim with state insurer iCare. However, Coles is one of the few companies in Australia that self-insures, meaning Sophia lodged her claim with Coles's insurance arm Coles TeamCover.
In June, Sophia received a letter that her claim was denied. Coles told Sophia she did not receive an injury arising out of the course of her employment, she did not have a psychological injury and was not totally or partially incapable of work.
In the letter, Coles wrote that the initial punching incident did not lead to any injury and that in the axe incident Sophia "observed what was taking place, but was not directly affected".
The letter noted other team members who were "directly threatened" were able to recover and go back to work.
Afterwards, with the assistance of Shine Lawyers, Sophia disputed Coles' findings. An independent psychologist appointed by Shine Lawyers found Sophia "totally unfit for work" and in need of "ongoing psychological and psychiatric treatment".
The symptoms described by Sophia indicated a diagnosis of PTSD and depression "fully attributable" to the work incidents.
This assessment along with a lump-sum claim for permanent impairment was submitted on Sophia's behalf in December, the response was due by May.
Throughout the process, Sophia's lawyer Natalee Davis said Coles was not "playing by the rules of the game".
"We can't report them to the State Insurance Regulatory Authority because they are a self-insurer."
Coles also requested copies of Sophia's bank statements, to prove that she wasn't working for another company, despite multiple psychiatrists saying Sophia was unable to work.
"It is persistent denial by any means necessary," Ms Davis said.
A week before a hearing scheduled for the Personal Injury Commission, a response from Coles on the permanent injury claim was received.
With the wrong name on the header, the letter denied liability for the lump sum compensation claim.
To support this, a report dated in April from a psychiatrist appointed by Coles assessed Sophia, and found Sophia was exposed to "numerous incidents of verbal and some physical aggression" and reported symptoms of PTSD which occurred after the punching incident in January and exacerbated by the axe incident in April.
"I consider [Sophia's] employment with Coles is a substantial contributing factor to the current condition," the psychiatrist concluded.
In this letter, Coles denied that Sophia suffered a permanent injury because Sophia's symptoms required ongoing treatment, exactly the opposite of what Coles asserted in the initial denial of Sophia's workers compensation claim.
"You don't need to be a lawyer to understand this approach is entirely nonsensical," Ms Davis said.
A Coles spokesperson said the company did not tolerate abuse or disrespect.
"We regularly train and develop our team to help them manage abusive behaviour, including de-escalation training. We also provide our team members with tools to help them remain safe in high-risk situations," the spokesperson said.
"In the unfortunate event where a team member is involved in an abusive situation, they are provided support through access to our employee assistance program (EAP) and counselling services."
With the hearing scheduled for Monday, Sophia's psychiatrists have said it is unlikely that she will work again, particularly not for the one employer that she has worked for nearly 35 years.
"They are ruthless, they are not compassionate, they are just out for the dollar."
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