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Sparks v HSBC Plc, Court of Appeal

21 January 2003
The issues

Causation – psychiatric illness – acceleration – exacerbation.

The facts

The Claimant, 51 at the time of Trial, began work for the Defendant Bank in 1969. He left in August 1997 and was retired on ill health grounds in June 1998.

Signs of depressive illness began in about 1994. The Claimant had his first breakdown from September to December 1995 after his transfer from the Central Lending Department to be Senior Lending Officer in a Branch. He was offered a choice between retirement or a part-time role with less responsibility. He took the latter. There was a gradual rehabilitation, which was complete by June 1996, when he moved to another branch in a Grade 4 role when his status and pay were at Grade 5. He made some mistakes in Autumn 1996. There was a Disciplinary Appraisal but nothing was taken further. He had a favourable Appraisal in January 1997. In March 1997, he was given more responsibility in line with his Grade, becoming a Senior Lending Officer at that Branch. At the same time, he consulted his GP with regard to chest pains and palpitations, which he thought, were connected with stress at work. His GP was worried about a heard condition and referred him for tests. There were indicates of stress in the way he behaved – shortness of temper “banging the phone down and things of that nature”. He was referred to Occupational Health for “increasing signs of stress/breakdown” and “previous lengthy period of ill health, a stress related illness”. Occupational Health responded with concerns with regard to the chest pains. It recommended support in the work place however in the meanwhile. The GP subsequently signed him off work for a month for chest pains, but he returned after a week. A little later, his Superior, one of a 3-man team, went on holiday and the Claimant had to hold the fort for him. Nothing much came in the way of help or support, notwithstanding Occupational Health’s memo. The Claimant made mistakes and on the return of his Manager, his Manager told him off but took the matter no further on account of the Claimant’s health condition. Two days later the Claimant saw his GP when he was given a medical certificate for 2 months. The cardiac problems proved negative and he was returned to a Psychiatrist. He did not return to work. The Psychiatrist reported “a moderate reactive depression of symptoms of panic, anxiety, confusion and thought block as a result of being over-stressed at work”.

The expert Psychiatrists on both sides disagreed as to whether the illness had been caused by work. The Defendant took the view that this was in any event an irrelevance as the only negligence alleged related to the last week, by which time the Claimant was already ill. In any event, the Judge preferred the Claimant’s psychiatric evidence, finding that the Claimant had suffered a depressive illness as a result of his work since 1995. The Judge also found that the Defendant had been in breach of duty during that last week. The Judge applied the “but for” test. He stated that whether or not some minimal damage had occurred in respect of the last week’s breach of duty on the part of the Defendant, it was de minimus. The claim was dismissed and the Claimant appealed.

The decision

1. The Claimant argued that both Psychiatrists supported the idea of some exacerbation or acceleration. The effect of the lack of support over the last week according to the Defendant was to bring forward something, which would have happened anyway “within a few days”.

2. The Claimant accepted that the award would in these circumstances be mild, given the moderate level of acceleration or exacerbation that came out of the medical evidence, but nonetheless, that it was not negligible.

3. The Defendant’s position was that the expert evidence failed to show that the Claimant’s position had been worsened or his departure hastened by the negligent conduct of the Bank over the last week. Their evidence had concentrated on the whole history of the Claimant’s illness and there was little in it that dealt with the last few days.

4. This was a case where the Court of Appeal should be slow to interfere. There were dangers in trying to read transcripts of Judgments and evidence as if they were statutes without the feel for the flavour of the case.

The Judge had heard and seen the witnesses and he was entitled on the evidence to reach the conclusion that those very late additions to the medical evidence did not require him to find that the negligence had caused or materially contributed to an appreciable or measurable exacerbation of an illness which had been developing for some months and was inevitably going to result in the eventual outcome.

Appeal dismissed.

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