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Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire [1992] 1 AC 310

NEGLIGENCE – PSYCHIATRIC DAMAGE – TRAUMATIC EVENT WITNESSED INDIRECTLY – DISTINCTION BETWEEN PRIMARY AND SECONDARY VICTIMS

Facts

A joined action was brought by Alcock (C) and several other claimants against the head of the South Yorkshire Police. C and the other claimants all had relatives who were caught up in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, in which 95 fans of Liverpool FC died in a crush due, it was later established, to the negligence of the police in permitting too many supporters to crowd in one part of the stadium. The disaster was broadcast on live television, where several claimants alleged they had witnessed friends and relatives die. Others were present in the stadium or had heard about the events in other ways. All claimed damages for the psychiatric harm they suffered as a result.

Issue

The House of Lords were called upon to determine whether, for the purposes of establishing liability in negligence, those who suffer purely psychiatric harm from witnessing an event at which they are not physically present are sufficiently proximate for a duty to be owed, and thus can be said to be reasonably within the contemplation of the tortfeasor.

Held

The House of Lords, in finding for D, held that, in cases of purely psychiatric damage caused by negligence, a distinction must be drawn between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ victims. A primary victim was one who was present at the event as a participant, and would thus be owed a duty-of-care by D, subject to harm caused being foreseeable, of course. A secondary victim, by contrast, would only succeed if they fell within certain criteria. Such persons must establish:

  • A close tie of love and affection to a primary victim
  • Appreciation of the event with their own unaided senses
  • Proximity to the event or its immediate aftermath
  • The psychiatric harm must be caused by a sufficiently shocking event.

Neither C nor the other claimants could meet these conditions, therefore the appeal was dismissed.


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