Note: To read about this case in greater depth, and with the benefit of full OSCOLA referencing, simply purchase a copy of ‘The Case Law Compendium: English & European Law’ at Amazon, Waterstones or Barnes & Noble (or go here for a full list of international outlets)
As with Topp v London County Bus (South West) Ltd, the principle of proximity proves the distinguishing criteria, however this earlier case pushed further the scope of award for damages, with an emerging appreciation for psychiatric nervous shock or trauma.
When the husband and father of four young children is involved in a collision with a commercial articulated vehicle (that had itself just collided with another articulated vehicle), the resulting injuries leave the youngest of the girls dead within minutes, and the father seriously injured, while lapsing in and out of consciousness. After being notified of the crash almost two hours later, his wife (and mother to the children) is escorted to the nearest hospital, where she is confronted with the aftermath of the accident, and left in a state of deep shock and profound distress; the effects of which were to be felt for many months afterwards.
Having chosen to pursue a tortious claim through the owners of the commercial vehicles, the original judges found that proximity and foreseeability precluded eligibility for damages, and so while admission of the daughter’s manslaughter provided financial remedy, the anguish and emotional turmoil of the mother did not.
However, upon appeal, the scope of award for incidents such as this was, for the first time, given consideration enough to result in a new precedent in English tort law, and significant allowances for the impact of psychological trauma upon secondary victims previously considered too remote for inclusion.
“Was not the action of the appellant in visiting her family in hospital immediately after she heard of the accident basically indistinguishable from that of a ‘rescuer,’ being intent upon comforting the injured?”
“Every system of law must set some bounds to the consequences for which a wrongdoer must make reparation. If the burden is too great it cannot and will not be met, the law will fall into disrepute, and it will be a disservice to those victims who might reasonably have expected compensation. In any state of society it is ultimately a question of policy to decide the limits of liability.”
“[I]f the effect on this wife and mother of the results of the negligence is considered to have been reasonably foreseeable, I do not see the justification for not finding the defendants liable in damages therefor.”
“I would suppose that the legal profession well understands that an acute emotional trauma, like a physical trauma, can well cause a psychiatric illness in a wide range of circumstances and in a wide range of individuals whom it would be wrong to regard as having any abnormal psychological make-up.”