Vernon v Bosley (No. 1) [1997] 1 All ER 577.

PHYSCIATRIC INJURY

Facts

The plaintiff suffered distress after witnessing fire fighters attempt to rescue her children from the wreckage of a car following a road traffic accident. She suffered no physical harm herself, but sought to recover damages for psychiatric injury.  Under the law established in Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police[1992] 1 AC 310, damages could not be recovered unless the alleged injury was shown to be a ‘recognised medical condition’.

Issue

The question for the court was whether distress constitutes a ‘medically recognised condition’ such as to found a claim for damages for pure psychiatric injury in the tort of negligence.

Held

The court held that distress is not a medically recognised condition but rather is simply a state of mind, albeit an unpleasant one, which all humans inevitably experience in the ordinary course of life. As such, the scope of any duty of care could not be extended to encompass a duty not to cause distress. To do so would open the ‘floodgates’, creating the risk of limitless liability, the extent of which it would be impossible for a defendant to know or predict in advance of acting. The plaintiff’s claim was accordingly rejected.

Although criticised from some quarters as drawing arbitrary distinctions, the decision was in line with the prevailing case law at the time, which distinguished between pathological grief (a medically recognised condition) and non-pathological grief (a normal human emotion) (Kralj v McGrath [1986] 1 All ER 54).