HINZ v BERRY

Damages for nervous shock (and even secondary nervous shock) are now common across many jurisdictions, as was outlined in my academic paper ‘A Comparative Analysis of Secondary Nervous Shock within Tort Law’ , and as explored within McLoughlin v O’Brian; however, in this matter the courts were less certain as to how best to regulate the level of award, yet forged ahead regardless of any potential to undermine the cost of psychological trauma.

In spring of 1964, the respondent was returning home from a day trip with her sizeable family, when after parking their Bedford Dormobile in an available lay-by, an out-of-control car ploughed into the family, as she, the recently pregnant mother of eight children, stood helplessly watching from the other side of the road.

With her husband pronounced dead, and almost all of the children suffering injuries, the respondent was left to pick up the pieces of an already challenging life; after which, she initiated proceedings for damages.

Claiming pecuniary loss as a result of her husbands death, the court awarded £15000, along with an additional £4000 for nervous shock, as had been privy to such claims for the preceding quarter century.

Upon appeal, the defendant-appellant cited a gross overestimation of the award for nervous shock, relying upon an absence of damages based tariffs in this particular area for justification.

With examination of recent case precedent and the comments of her consultant psychiatrist, who remarked during the trial that:

“[T]here is no medical doubt at all that she is suffering from a morbid depression; she is now officially ill.”

And how:

“In other circumstances I would probably have brought her into hospital, at least for a rest, but possibly for electrical treatment and it may come to that yet.”

The Court acknowledged the robustness of the respondent and her tenacity in the face of such a massive loss; yet, illustrated that while English law precluded a right to compensation for grief and sorrow, evidential and medically diagnosable trauma proved an exception to that rule where such symptoms were demonstrable.

Hence, the Court uniformly upheld the award and dismissed the appeal, while outlining how it was beyond the power of the courts to undermine the significance of nervous shock and reminding the parties that:

“In English law no damages are awarded for grief or sorrow caused by a person’s death.
No damages are to be given for the worry about the children, or for the financial strain or stress, or the difficulties of adjusting to a new life. Damages are, however, recoverable for nervous shock, or, to put it in medical terms, for any recognisable psychiatric illness caused by the breach of duty by the defendant.”