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Corr v IBC Vehicles Ltd, Court of Appeal, 31 March 2006

13 April 2006
The issues

Employer Liability – Factory accident – consequential depression – whether suicide as a consequence of depression was foreseeable as damage arising from the original accident – intervening Act – Novus Actus Interveniens – Chain of causation.

The facts

The Claimant was the widow of Thomas Corr who died on 23rd May 2002. Mr Corr had been a maintenance engineer, working for Vauxhall motorcars. On the production line was an automated arm with a sucker for lifting the panels. One of these malfunctioned. Mr Corr and another working to remedy the fault were working to repair it. Suddenly, without warning, the machine picked up a panel and lifted it out of the press. He was in the way. He moved his head. The panel struck him on the right side of his head and severed most of his ear. The reconstruction of the ear had been long and painful, requiring several operations and absences from work. The Claimant had been disfigured, suffered unsteadiness, mild tinnitus, severe headaches and difficulty in sleeping. In addition he suffered a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reliving the accident and having flash backs to the event. He began to suffer from nightmares, struggled to cope with daily life and struggled with his work. He felt bitter towards his employers, and was angry that he had never received a proper apology. He became bad tempered and drank more than he had before the accident. A psychologist stated in a report in February 2001 that the Claimant would benefit from an apology, which was not forthcoming, until the Respondents were, in the words of the Court, shamed into giving it. In February 2002 he was referred by his GP for hospital treatment and was later that month admitted into hospital after he had taken an overdose. By March 2002 he was at significant risk of suicide. He was described in a full risk assessment dated 9th March 2002 as having recurrent thoughts of jumping off a high building. By April he was stating that his life was not worth living and that he was becoming a burden on his family. He was seen by the psychologist on the 20th May for the preparation of a subsequent report. He killed himself three days later by jumping from the top of a multi-storey car park. Mrs Corr brought a claim against the employer on behalf of the estate and under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976. She was awarded £85,000.00 in respect of the claim on behalf of the estate but the claim under the Fatal Accidents Act was dismissed by the Judge. After dismissing the claim found that the deceased’s suicide was not reasonably foreseeable by the Defendant and the damages sought to be recovered in relation to the suicide fell outside the scope for the Defendant’s duty of care.

The Claimant appealed.

The decision

In an action for damages based on negligence the question is not whether the particular outcome was foreseeable, but whether the kind of harm for which damages are sought was foreseeable and if it was, whether that harm ought to be regarded on policy grounds as too remote.

The class of harm on which the widow founded her claim was depression which was admitted to have been a foreseeable consequence of the employer’s negligence. The evidence was that suicide was a not uncommon sequella of severe depression. There was no other cause other than depression for Mr Corr’s suicide. This was sufficient to establish liability in the absence of some element of fact or policy which interrupted or negated causation. It was correct but irrelevant that the employer’s duty of care did not extend to anticipating and preventing suicide. The widow’s case had not been that the employer had any such duty.

The Law of Negligence no longer drew any distinction for purposes of foreseeability and causation between physical and psychological injury. It was accordingly admitted that the Defendants were liable to pay damages both for the physical damage and the depression into which he consequentially fell. The question was whether the consequences of that depression for the purposes of compensating Mrs Corr included Mr Corr’s eventual suicide.

The answer to that question was essentially one of fact. To the extent that the Judge’s conclusion below was that the chain of causation had been broken by the decision of an otherwise rational man to take his own life it could not be defended on the evidence. Mr Corr was driven by an ever deepening depression over which he plainly had no control. The suicide was proved to have been a function of the depression and so formed part of the damage for which the Defendants were liable. To the extent that the Judge’s conclusion was that a chain of causation was necessarily broken was such a decision it constituted a proposition of law which was no longer sound.

To cut the chain of causation and treat Mr Corr as responsible for his own death would be to make an unjustified exception to contemporary principles of causation and would take the law back half a century to a time when the legal and moral approbrium attached to suicide placed damages for being driven to it on a par with awarding a person for his own crime. Once accepted the suicide by itself did not place a clinically depressed individual beyond the pale of the law of negligence, the relationship of his suicide to his depression became a pure question of fact. Once liability has been established for the depression the question in each case was whether it had been shown that it was the depression that drove the deceased to take his own life. On the evidence it was. The Claimant did not need to establish that at the relevant time, namely at the time of the accident, the deceased’s suicide was reasonably foreseeable.

Appeal allowed.

Comments

Lord Justice Ward dissented on the ground that the question of reasonable foresight had to be judged in the light of circumstances known and ought to have been known at the time that the accident occurred and not with the benefit of hindsight. Judging the responsibility of the Defendant at the time the accident occurred, it could not reasonably have been foreseen that their employee would lapse into such dark depression and many years later would kill himself.

Although he dissented he also expressed comments evidencing his sympathy for the Claimant and her family including a swipe at the suggestion that there is a compensation culture that needs combating in his reference to the comment of Lord Hobhouse in Tomlinson v Congelton (“The pursuit of an unrestrained culture of blame and compensation has many evil consequences”) as an observation which he preferred to forget. On the other hand he also made a comment, which all of us involved in Defendant Personal Injury work would do well to remember, even in these more enlightened days: “I do wish the word “sorry” was a word which more frequently found its place in a defendant’s (and more particularly their insurer’s) lexicon since in human relations it can mean much and should not be thought to cost much”.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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