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Attia v British Gas [1988] QB 304

NEGLIGENCE – PROPERTY DAMAGE – PSYCHIATRIC HARM

Facts

C engaged British Gas (D) to install a new central heating system in her home but returned to find that her loft had caught fire. The house and its contents suffered extensive damage, which C witnessed first-hand. The property claim against D was settled, as their breach of duty had plainly caused the damage C’s house, however C also sued to recover damages for nervous shock, incurred as a result of witnessing her belongings. This claim as dismissed at first instance and C brought an appeal.

Issue

This case raised two distinct issues, one factual and one a matter of policy. The factual question concerned whether, for the purposes of imposing a duty of care on D, it was reasonably foreseeable that the loft would catch fire. The second question, and the more important, concerned whether, in principle, damages were recoverable for recognised psychiatric harm where the harm in question was caused purely to property.

Held

The Court of Appeal found in favour of C, holding that, as a matter of principle, there was no doctrinal or policy reason to limit the recovery of damages to psychiatric harm arising as a result of damage to property. To limit such cases to personal injury would not be ‘fair or convenient’ ([1988] QB 304, per Bingham LJ), nor was such a limitation justifiable as a matter of policy; the only substantive policy reason to reject liability in such circumstances was the fear of opening the ‘floodgates’ to a raft of unmeritorious claims, which the Court dismissed as unfounded. The case was thus remitted to trial for determination of the foreseeability question.


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