When making a claim for personal injury, compensation is sought on two basis; general damages and special damages. General damages is for the pain, suffering and loss of amenity suffered by the person bringing the claim, known as the claimant, i.e., how the injury has impacted that individual’s life. 

In many cases, a claim for personal injury will include a psychiatric element (such as depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD) which occurred as a result of the physical injury. However, there are many instances where a personal injury claim can be brought where no physical injury has been caused. Still, the defendant’s negligence has caused psychiatric harm alone to the claimant. 

What is a psychiatric injury and what are the causes?

A psychiatric injury can be broadly defined as a mental trauma suffered by a person as a result of an accident or event. Claims for psychiatric injury will likely only succeed where the negligence has caused the claimant to suffer from a recognised psychiatric illness, for example, depression, anxiety, PTSD and adjustment disorders. Temporary upset, panic or stress will not suffice.

There are several ways in which a psychiatric injury claim can arise, with some of the most notable being a victim of an assault, near-misses and accidents at work and witnessing a family member in a traumatising event. A lesser-known cause of psychiatric harm is workplace stress.

Last month, the Berkshire Coroner concluded the cause of death for Caversham Primary School head teacher Ruth Perry as “suicide, contributed to by an Ofsted inspection carried out in November 2022”. The Coroner noted that despite Perry’s mental health being known to deteriorate significantly during and after the inspection, parts of the inspection by Ofsted “lacked fairness, respect and sensitivity” and, as a result, had a detrimental impact on Perry’s psychiatric state, causing her to display suicidal ideation and later commit suicide.

In light of Perry’s case, it has rarely been more relevant to highlight the importance of employers’ duty of care for their staff and, where such standards are not met, how a claim for psychiatric injury can be considered. 

Workplace stress claims

It is understood both in and outside of the courtroom that stress, pressure and anxiety are an everyday part of most people’s lives. Adding work as a contributing factor to such stress is unavoidable for many. However, there is an increasing awareness that stress sometimes exceeds acceptable levels and impacts an employee’s psychological and physical health. 

Employers owe a general duty of care for the health and safety of their employees. Put simply, they are required to ensure their employees’ safety (both physical and mental) when at work and carrying out relevant tasks. 

In many cases, a claimant will have suffered both physical and psychiatric injury as a result of an employer’s negligence. For example, where psychiatric injury has arisen after a physical injury which was caused at work or where a claimant suffers a stress-related physical disorder such as ulcers, heart disease or hypertension. 

Criteria for psychiatric injury claims

Generally, a claim against an employer for psychiatric injury will only be successful if the stress at work has caused the claimant to suffer from a recognised psychiatric illness; general stress will not be sufficient. Additionally, the following criteria must be met;

  1. The injury caused to the claimant was reasonably foreseeable. The question for the court in these cases will be, ‘What did the employer know (or ought reasonably to have known’ about the individual employee?’.Generally, employers are entitled to assume that their employees can cope with the everyday pressures of their jobs. However, they are expected to take ‘reasonable’ steps once they are made aware of a particular problem or vulnerability – this can come from the employee explicitly voicing their concerns or if there were signs that the employer could have been expected to pick up on, such as suicidal ideation.
  2. The employer has breached their duty of care by failing to take reasonable steps to prevent a foreseeable injury from occurring.The leading case in this area of Sutherland v Hatton [2002], states that for the employer’s duty to take reasonable steps to be triggered, the indications that the employee’s stress is developing to injury to health must be “plain enough for any reasonable employer to realise that something must be done about it”. The employer’s duty to take reasonable steps will depend on the following:– the foreseeability of harm;
    the magnitude of the risk of that harm occurring;
    – the gravity of the harm which may take place;
    – the cost and practicability of preventing it, and
    – the justifications for running the risk.
  3. The employer’s breach of duty has caused the employee’s psychiatric injury.

Whilst an employee need not show that the employer’s breach of duty was the sole cause of their injury/ill health, they must provide evidence that it made a material contribution. Simple occupational stress that is not directly related to the breach will not be sufficient.  

Compensation in psychiatric injury cases will depend on many factors, including the severity of any symptoms suffered, the age and status of the deceased and any future prognosis. 

The following scenarios could give rise to a claim in personal injury, where a claimant has suffered psychiatric injury; 

  • Excessive workload
  • Long working hours – where employees are frequently asked to work more than contractual hours
  • Bullying – where an employer was aware of bullying either by the employer or other employees, and it was foreseeable that such treatment could lead to psychiatric injury. 
  • Mishandled disciplinary procedures 
  • Traumatising jobs/conditions for work  
  • Failings in managing and governance within your employment – in some circumstances, similar to Perry’s case, it can be argued that a public authority such as Ofsted may be required to fulfil a private-law duty of care owed between employer and employee as far as it is consistent with the completion of their duties. 

How we can help

The Personal Injury team at Lester Aldridge has expansive experience representing claimants in psychiatric injury cases such as those addressed in this article. Melanie Lidstone-Land, Senior Associate in the Personal Injury Team at Lester Aldridge, comments, “Experiencing extreme and unnecessary stress in the workplace is debilitating and can cause severe psychiatric injury which impacts work, personal life and physical health. People must be aware that the Health and Safety laws are in place to prevent this happening, and if their employers have not adhered to those laws, they could be in breach of their duty of care, and there may be a claim for compensation to be made.”

Our team are happy to discuss your concerns free of charge and without obligation. Please get in touch with us at online.enquiries@LA-law.com or 0344 967 0791.