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Greatorex v Greatorex [2000] 4 All ER 769

Negligence – Duty of Care – Secondary Victims – Liability of Family Members - Psychiatric Damage

Facts

The defendant, John Greatorex (D), had been drinking with his friend H. With H’s permission D proceeded to drive H’s car, with H himself as a passenger. D was responsible for a serious collision with an oncoming vehicle. H did not suffer any serious injuries but D was left trapped inside the car, unconscious and with a severe head injury.

The emergency services were called and soon arrived on the scene. Amongst them was the claimant, Christopher Greatorex (C), a fire officer and the father of D. Having to attend to his son in such circumstances caused C to develop long-term post-traumatic stress disorder, and as a result C brought an action against D in negligence.

Issues

The principal issue in this case was whether, and in what circumstances, a person could be liable in negligence to a close family member for any self-inflicted harm that, having been witnessed by said family member, had caused them to suffer lasting psychiatric damage.

Held

The court, finding in favour of C, rejected the claim on policy grounds. Whilst it was correct that C fell within the definition of a ‘secondary victim’, meeting the criteria set out in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, a primary victim could not be liable in negligence to a family member as a result of their own self-inflicted injuries; no duty of care was owed in such circumstances, as to hold otherwise would place an inexcusable fetter on personal autonomy. Moreover, to permit litigation for purely psychiatric damage in such cases might exacerbate the underlying problem, for instance if the primary victim were themselves suffering from a psychiatric disorder, and “would be potentially productive of acute family strife.”


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