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Corr v IBC Vehicles Ltd

7 March 2008
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 to the Court of Appeal who found for the widow. The Defendant appealed to the House of Lords.

The decision

There were significant points of common ground between the parties. The employer accepted that it owed a duty to Mr Corr to take reasonable care to avoid causing him personal injury. Personal injury had to be understood as embracing both physical and psychological injury. That was the effect of the decision in Page v Smith which neither party had criticised or invited the House to review. The employer was in breach of its duty to Mr Corr. This breach caused the accident of the 22nd June 1996. Thirdly, it was common ground that as a consequence of the breach Mr Corr suffered severe physical injuries and mental and psychological injury for which, up to the date of his death, he could have recovered damages, had he survived. Fourthly, it was agreed that the depressive illness from which Mr Corr suffered was caused by the accident and that there was nothing in the background or history to suggest that he had suffered in this way before the accident. Finally, it was common ground that it was his depressive illness which drove Mr Corr to take his own life.

The issue dividing the parties was whether, for one reason or another, the damages claimed by Mrs Corr under the 1976 Act were too remote.

As remoteness, Lord Roger in Simmons v British Steel Plc, had summarised the authorities as follows:

1. The starting point was that a Defendant was not liable for a consequence of the kind which was not reasonably foreseeable.

2. It did not follow that a Defendant was liable for all damage that was reasonably foreseeable. The Defendant might not be liable for damage cause by an intervening act or unreasonable conduct on the part of the Claimant.

3. If the injury was foreseeable the Defendant is liable, even if the damage is greater in extent than was foreseeable or if it was caused in a way that could not have been foreseeable. The Defendant has to take his victim as he finds him.

4. Where personal injury was reasonably foreseeable the Defendant was liable for any personal injury, whether physical or psychiatric which the Claimant suffers as a result of the wrongful act.

Beyond this there were six issues to be considered:-

1. Whether Mr Corr’s suicide fell outside the duty of care owed to him by his employer.
Whilst the authorities suggested that it was unusual for a person to be under a duty to take reasonable care to prevent another person from doing something to his loss, injury or damage deliberately and that the law did not generally treat us as our brother’s keeper, there were particular features of this case not addressed by that broad principle. The employer owed Mr Corr a duty which embraced psychological as well as physical injury. The breach of that duty caused him injury of both kinds. Mr Corr acted in a way which he would not have done but for the injury, from which the employer’s breach caused him to suffer. His conduct in taking his own life could not be said to fall outside the scope of the duty which his employer owed him.

2. Was Mr Corr’s act reasonably foreseeable and one for which the employer should be held liable?
Whilst the Court had some sympathy for the feeling expressed by Lord Justice Ward in the Court of Appeal that “suicide does make a difference” that feeling could not absolve the Court from the duty of applying the established principles to the facts of the case before it. Here the inescapable fact was that the depression was a foreseeable consequence of the breach. The Court of Appeal had been right to take the view that it was not necessary for the Claimant to show that suicide itself was foreseeable. It was not a manifestation of severe depression which could be properly held to be so unusual or predictable as to be outside the bounds of what was reasonably foreseeable. If it were necessary for the Claimant to have established the reasonable foreseeability by the employer of suicide the employer would have had difficulty escaping an adverse finding. However, the principle that a tort feasor who reasonably foresees the occurrence of some damage need not foresee the precise form which the damage may take applies in these circumstances.

3. Did the act of suicide break the chain of causation?
Mr Corr’s suicide was not a voluntary informed decision taken by him as an adult of sound mind making and giving effect to a personal decision about his future. It was the response of a man suffering from a severely depressive illness which impaired his capacity to make reasoned and informed judgments about his future, such illness being a consequence of the employer’s wrong doing. In the field of criminal law there was need for a clear dividing line between conduct for which a Defendant might be held criminally responsible and conduct for which he might not. In the field of tort there was no need for so blunt an instrument. The Court of Appeal were right that it would be retrograde to bar recovery by the Claimant because the deceased was not, in terms of the M,Naghten rules, insane.

4. Was the Claimant’s conduct “unreasonable”?
This was linked to the break-in-the-chain issue. Having found that Mr Corr’s act was not a break in the chain, it was impossible to hold that the damages claimed were too remote because his conduct was unreasonable.

5. Was the act of the Claimant a voluntary act in terms of the principle volenti non fit injuria?
There was no suggestion that Mr Corr had consented in any way to the accident and injury which befell him on the 22nd June 1996. This was an argument addressed only to his suicide. But it could not be said that that was something to which he consented voluntarily and with his eyes open but instead was an act performed because of his psychological condition, brought about by his employer’s breach of duty.

6. Whether his actions amounted to contributory negligence?
The matter had been debated before the House of Lords very briefly. It had to be doubted whether it was appropriate to raise the issue after no more than cursory argument. However, on the basis of the arguments outlined relating to Novus Actus and unreasonable conduct, the Claimant should be absolved from any cause or responsibility and if contributory negligence was in issue it should be assessed at 0% (Lord Bingham). Lord Scott considered a deduction was appropriate in the sum of 20%; Lord Walker would make no deduction; Lord Mance considered that policy might lead to the appropriateness of an element of responsibility on the part of the deceased, small though it might be; Lord Neuberger agreed with Lord Scott and Lord Mance and took the view that there was room for a finding of contributory negligence, the quantum of which would be dependant on the degree to which the deceased’s personal autonomy had been overborne by the impairment was mind attributable to the Defendant and would lie between 50% and 0%.

Appeal dismissed.

Comments

This was a case of some consequence in the context of causation. It is interesting that a number of the Law Lords noted – with surprise? – that Page v Smith had not been challenged by the Defendants. It may also take some working out as to the precise relationship of the causation decision in Corr with what Lord Hoffman took to be the accepted test for psychiatric injury in the workplace in his speech in Grieves, namely the Hatton test as approved in Barber v Somerset County Council.

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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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