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Pratley v Surrey County Council, Court of Appeal, 25 July 2003

5 August 2008
The issues

Stress – Psychiatric Injury – Hatton v Sutherland – Stress at Work

The facts

The Claimant had worked for Surrey County Council since 1986 and at the time she left employment, was working in the Social Services Department as a Case Manager for the Elderly. Before working for the Council, she had qualified as a Nurse and worked both in the RAF and at Leatherhead Cottage Hospital. Her Line Manager was Mrs Elrick who was Locality Care Manager in Leatherhead. The Claimant’s job entailed assessing clients and their needs and formulating a plan if relevant. She would arrange the appropriate services and equipment. The plan might involve care at home in the community, or in a home. Care at home or in the community involved more active management than when a client was cared for in a home. Mrs Elrick accepted that in the Social Services money was not available to provide the services demanded to the level that Social Workers and public expected and that this led to pressure on staff and that such pressures could lead to stress. She accepted that undue stress created a risk of injury to health. The Claimant argued that she had twice (in March and August 1996) warned of the injury to her health if nothing was done to lighten her burden and that Mrs Elrick had promised to introduce a new system but had failed to honour that promise by September and that that failure was a substantial cause of her illness.

The Defendant argued that there was nothing to put the Council on notice of a particular risk to the Claimant’s health before August 1996. The Claimant had had two weeks off in March 1996 and had hidden the fact that the cause might have been stress related. The meeting that she had had with Mrs Elrick did not put the Council on notice the Defendants argued, that action had to be taken in particular stacking in order to avoid a real risk of injury. Moreover, the Defendant said that the Council provided access to a confidential stress counselling service, occupational health facilities and a private health scheme through BUPA. Mrs Elrick had regularly documented meetings with Mrs Pratley to monitor and discuss problems.

The decision

1. The Judge had clearly found that Mrs Elrick’s foresight and what was foreseeable were limited to the risk of illness arising through a continuing work overload over a future period. The risk of immediate collapse was not foreseen and in the Judge’s view not foreseeable. The Judge’s findings on this matter were unimpeachable.

2. The Claimants relied on Jolley v Sutton and Hughes v The Lord Advocate in order to argue that foresight of some future injury was foresight of risk of harm of psychiatric illness. Steps that Mrs Elrick said she would be taking and did not take in that regard, would have been sufficient to have prevented the immediate collapse. This case was not analogous to either Jolley or Hughes. There was a potentially relevant distinction between the risk of psychiatric injury arising from continuing overload in the future and a risk of collapse in the short-term; the harm in each case was psychiatric injury, but it occurred by different mechanisms and at different times in circumstances calling for a response at different times.

3. The Judge had found that Mrs Elrick was not negligent in failing to write about or implement stacking before Miss Pratley’s return from holiday. He had found that it was reasonable for her to see how things were before taking specific action. In asking whether for the purposes of the tort of negligence Mrs Elrick should have taken the steps suggested, it must be proper to have regard to what was foreseeable.

4. The reasoning underlying Jolley confirms that it is wrong to suggest that liability and negligence for injury of one type can flow from unreasonable failure to prevent injury of another type. The foreseeable risk of future injury was distinct from the rescue of immediate collapse on return from holiday. Breach of duty in relation to the former is no basis for liability in relation to the latter. Although foreseen and actual injury were different, they both sprang from the same source, ie the failure to remove the boat, here the injury foreseen was injury to mental health caused by long term failure to reduce Miss Pratley’s workload and not an immediate collapse caused by a failure to keep a promise.

5. The risk foreseen was not a general risk of psychiatric illness. It was a risk of psychiatric illness if the Claimant continued to work under overload over a longer future term.

Appeal dismissed.

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