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White and Others v Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police [1999] 2 AC 455

NEGLIGENCE – PSYCHIATRIC DAMAGE – LIABILITY TO RESCUERS – DISTINCTION BETWEEN PRIMARY AND SECONDARY VICTIMS

Facts

The claimants (C) were all police officers who had been on duty within Hillsborough Stadium during the eponymous disaster, in which 95 Liverpool FC fans were killed and many others injured. C brought an action in negligence (and/or breach of statutory duty) against their employer, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police (D), for the psychiatric harm they had suffered as a result of witnessing the tragedy first-hand. It was not disputed that D was negligent or, indeed, that this had caused nervous shock to C. The Court of Appeal had previously found in favour of C and D appealed to the House of Lords.

Issues

This case raised two principal questions. Firstly, it fell to be determined whether an employer owed a duty of care to protect their employees from psychiatric injuries they may incur in the course of their employment. Secondly, C argued that they fell within the ambit of ‘primary’ victims, and should thus be permitted to succeed with an ordinary claim in negligence. The House of Lord were thus called upon to revisit the distinction between primary and secondary victims set out in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire ([1992] 1 AC 310).

Held

D was under a duty to take reasonable steps to protect his employees from the risk of physical harm, but there was no extension of this duty to protect C from psychiatric harm when they were not exposed to any risk of physical injury. Thus, there could be no duty of care owed to C for purely psychiatric harm, as they were not at any point in any physical danger. Moreover, a rescuer in relation to whom physical injury was not reasonably foreseeable could not recover damages for psychiatric injury sustained by witnessing, or participating in the aftermath of, an accident which had caused death or injury to others; such rescuers were to be categorised as secondary victims, and so would have to meet the conditions specified by Lord Oliver in Alcock.


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