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Melville v. Home Office


Court of Appeal

The court gave judgment in six appeal cases involving claims for damages for psychiatric injury arising out of stress at work. (1) Mrs Harman's (H) employment as a nursing auxiliary in a centre for children with learning difficulties had been terminated as a result of her ill health from depression and anxiety. The judge accepted evidence that, but for pressures at work, her condition would not have become chronic or lasted so long. He found that H was in a high risk occupation that imposed on employers a higher than normal standard of alertness in respect of the risk of psychiatric injury and that H's employer had failed to protect her from foreseeable harm as it was aware of her pre-existing vulnerability and there had been complaints about staff shortages. (2) Mr Best (B) had retired through ill health from his job as a senior university lecturer following a breakdown. The judge concluded that the university knew of the excessive work burden on B and had enough information to realise that he was at a real and immediate risk of a breakdown. (3) Mrs Wheeldon (W) had given up her job as a part-time senior customer services representative for a bank as a result, so the judge found, of a moderate depressive episode with panic attacks. The judge found that the bank had been aware through their occupational health department of impending harm to W but had failed to discuss it with her. (4) Mr Green (G) had retired through ill health from his job as chief sub-editor following a breakdown. He had written a memorandum complaining about his workload but the judge found that his employer could not have foreseen that his inability to cope was more than occupational stress. (5) Mr Moore (M) had retired through ill health caused by a colleague's sustained bullying for which his employer was held liable. The employer appealed on the ground that the damages for loss of earnings should have been apportioned to take account of non-negligent stressors. (6) Mr Melville (X), a prison health care officer, retired with a stress-related illness after dealing with an inmate's suicide. The foreseeability of his illness was tried as a preliminary issue and decided in his favour. His employer appealed, arguing that the judge had erred in finding them liable for X's stress-related injury because he had identified a risk of harm to a group of workers rather than considering whether X had shown signs of impending injury.

HELD: The general principles to be applied in claims for psychiatric injury arising out of stress at work had been set out by the Court of Appeal, although care was required in their application to the particular facts of each case, Barber v Somerset CC (2002) EWCA Civ 76 , (2002) PIQR P241 applied. Nothing said by the House of Lords on appeal had been intended to alter the practical guidance given by the Court of Appeal, Barber v Somerset CC (2004) UKHL 13 , (2004) 2 All ER 385 considered. It was foreseeable injury flowing from the employer's breach of duty that gave rise to liability for injury caused by stress at work. (1) There was no basis for concluding that caring for children with learning difficulties imposed on H's employer a higher standard of alertness to the risk that its employees would sustain psychiatric injury. The fact that H might be vulnerable had been confidential information and her employer could not be fixed with knowledge of it. Despite general complaints of staff shortages, in the absence of signs that she was particularly vulnerable there had been nothing to indicate that H could not cope with her work. It was not reasonably foreseeable to her employer that H would suffer psychiatric injury, so it was not in breach of duty to her. (2) The finding that B's breakdown was reasonably foreseeable was vitiated by errors of fact by the judge and was contrary to the weight of the evidence. There were no sufficient indications of harm to B's health arising from stress at work. The outcome of B's claim did not depend on his failure to use the university's counselling service but it was a factor that the judge should have given credit for when considering whether the university was in breach if its duty of care. (3) It would only be in exceptional circumstances that a person working part-time would be able to succeed in a claim for injury caused by stress at work. The bank had breached its duty to W by failing to act on its own advice and to take steps to reduce the stress on her and the judge had been entitled to find on the medical evidence that this breach of duty had caused her to suffer an identifiable psychiatric injury. (4) The judge had been justified in concluding that the employer's response to G's memo had been reasonable. (5) Once the work-related stress had been shown to be the cause of M's loss of earnings it was for his employer to show that there were other potential causes as well in order for damages to be apportioned. It had failed to do this, and the only non-negligent stressors identified related to M's work. (6) X's employer had foreseen the risk of injury for the type of work but in X's case it had failed to implement a system that it had designed to deal with that risk. The mere fact that an employer offered an occupational health service should not lead to the conclusion that the employer had foreseen risk of psychiatric injury to any individual or class of employee due to stress at work.

Judgment accordingly.

[2005] IRLR 293,(2005) PIQR P19,[2005] EWCA Civ 06

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