Walters v North Glamorgan NHS Trust [2002] EWCA Civ 1792

NEGLIGENCE – PSYCHIATRIC HARM – SECONDARY VICTIMS – SINGLE TRAUMATIC EVENT – EFFLUXION OF TIME - SUDDEN APPRECIATION OF EVENT BY CLAIMANT

Facts

N, an NHS trust, appealed against a decision granting damages to the claimant (C) for a psychiatric condition C suffered as a result of events which resulted in the death of her infant son (B). A hospital run by N had failed, negligently, to diagnose B's acute hepatitis, and as a result B suffered a seizure which was witnessed by C. The hospital initially informed C that B had suffered no brain damage but it later transpired that B had incurred severe brain damage and would have no quality of life. C agreed to terminate life support and B died in her arms. C brought an action against N for psychiatric damage, which was upheld, and N appealed on the basis that C was insufficiently proximate

Issue

Whether, in order to recover damages for psychiatric harm, the claimant must have witnessed a single traumatic event or its immediate aftermath, or whether, as was the case here, it would suffice that the event itself transpired over a period of hours but the appreciation of the claimant was itself sudden. It was also argued by N that, as a matter of policy, to recognise liability in such circumstances would overextend the ambit of negligence with respect to psychiatric damage.

Held

C was entitled to recover damages as a secondary victim. In such cases the claimant must have witnessed a horrifying event or its immediate aftermath, as C had done. Such an event, moreover, was not limited to one moment in time; a realistic approach had to be taken in such cases, and on a realistic appraisal of the facts C had suffered nervous shock as a result of the sudden impact of being informed of B’s condition.