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We last examined how we define an injury of the mind, and in particular the point that to have a valid claim for occupational stress or nervous shock it is necessary to prove the existence of a psychiatric disorder, as distinct from mere grief and upset. There are, however, cases in which this rule is not observed.
Bullying and harassment in the workplace that causes a person to suffer ordinary emotional reactions, such as anger and bitterness, can be recompensed without the individual needing to have suffered a diagnosed condition. Just as damages are available for ‘injury to feelings’ arising from a breach of the Equality Act 2010, since the landmark House of Lords decision in Majrowski v Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Trust  UKHL 34 it has been possible for employees to seek compensation in the civil courts for the misconduct of co-workers that amounts to a breach of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Section 3(2) of the 1997 Act empowers the courts to award compensation for “any anxiety caused”. As was said by Mr Justice Nichol in S&D Property Investments Ltd v Nisbet  EWHC Civ 1726 “…Parliament was here intending to make plain that compensation could be given for the concern that harassment can generate even if it does not give rise to any psychiatric or medical condition.” He added that it could be proved by the claimant’s own explanation of the effects of the harassment, without the need for expert psychological evidence.
Before Majrowski the Court of Appeal gave guidance in Vento v The Chief Constable of West Yorkshire  EWCA Civ 1871 on the correct scale of awards for injury to feelings falling short of a psychiatric disorder. The subsequent ‘Vento guidelines’ are periodically updated, and were last revised on 25th March 2019.
Whether the employee establishes harassment in breach of the Equality Act 2010, or the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the considerations involved in valuing awards for injury to feelings are similar, but not identical. The distinction was explained by Mr Justice Nichol in S&D Property Investments Limited in which he stated “Compensation for discrimination necessarily involves an award for the humiliation of being treated differently on an impermissible ground such as race or sex. That is not a necessary feature of a claim under the 1997 Act. On the other hand, it is an essential characteristic of a claim under that Act that there has been a course of conduct. There will not be a case where damages for harassment have to be assessed for an isolated or one off occurrence.”
So to conclude, claims for harassment in the workplace are the exception to the rule that compensation for occupational stress is reserved only for those who have suffered a psychiatric injury. The amount of any award will be affected by factors such as the gravity and duration of the acts complained of, as well as the motivation of the harasser and the effect on the employee. In this sense injury to feelings awards are distinct from ordinary personal injury damages, which focus entirely on the harm caused to the individual.
In our next post we will consider the guidance offered by the Court of Appeal on how to approach the task of valuing awards for injury to feelings in the cases of Vento (2002) and Choudhary v Martins (2008).
English law suffers from a Latin hangover, as illustrated by the antiquated maxim de minimis non curat lex, literally meaning “The law does not concern itself with trifles”. As we shall see, psychiatric injury claims are not exempt from the de minimis principle. Injuries to a person’s mental health caused by the circumstances of his or her employment are frequently referred to by lawyers as ‘stress’ claims, which is an oxymoron as stress is not a psychiatric condition and therefore cannot give rise to a claim. Indeed, stress is an essential aspect of the human condition, and may just as equally be beneficial.
In truth, anxiety and depression are ordinary human emotions, so said Lord Bridge in McLoughlin v O’Brian  1 AC 410. He continued – “So, the first hurdle which a plaintiff claiming damages… must surmount is to establish that he is suffering, not merely grief, distress or any other normal emotion, but a positive psychiatric illness.” A decade later, in Hicks v Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police  All ER 65, he repeated “it is perfectly clear that fear by itself, of whatever degree, is a normal human emotion for which no damages can be awarded”. This was applied most recently by Mr Justice Stewart, who in the Kenyan Mau Mau litigation held that fear alone does not amount to personal injury: see Kimathi v FCO  EWHC 1305 (QB).
The term ‘nervous shock’ is one used by lawyers to describe a category of cases concerning those who have been traumatised by terrible events, whether as a primary victim or as a witness. Speaking in Alcock v Chief Constable of the South Yorkshire Police  4 All ER 907, Lord Ackner explained “‘Shock’, in the context of this cause of action, involves the sudden appreciation by sight or sound of a horrifying event, which violently agitates the mind. It has yet to include psychiatric illness caused by the accumulation over a period in time of more than gradual assaults on the nervous system.” Again, in Page v Smith  AC 155, Lord Keith defined it as “a reaction to an immediate and horrifying impact, resulting in some recognisable psychiatric illness. There must be some serious mental disturbance outside the range of normal human experience, not merely the ordinary emotions of anxiety, grief or fear.” A simple application of the principle was seen in Reilly v Merseyside RHA  6 Med LR 246, in which the unsuccessful claimant sought damages for claustrophobia and fear suffered when trapped in a lift. Ordinary emotional responses to unpleasant experiences of even the most serious type cannot found a claim for damages.
Likewise, distress brought about by the apprehension of a physical injury that has not materialised, and may never do so, is not actionable. This was the conclusion of the House of Lords in Rothwell v Chemical and Insulating Co Ltd  UKHL 39, in which it was held that the inhalation of asbestos dust and fibres leading to innocuous pleural plaques could not give rise to a claim for anxiety arising from concern over the possibility of suffering a future disease.
In the workplace context employers are under no obligation to protect their staff from normal reactions. An employee who suffers no more than distress at work, falling short of a psychiatric injury, cannot recover damages for negligence. As was explained in Fraser v State Hospitals Board for Scotland  ScotCS 191 (11 July 2000) “…the duty is only to take reasonable care to prevent psychiatric harm. It is not to protect an employee from unpleasant emotions such as grief, anger and resentment or normal human conditions such as anxiety or stress. These do not involve and form of ‘injury’ at all.”
In Hussain v Chief Constable of West Mercia Constabulary  EWCA Civ 1205 the claimant sought damages from the police for misfeasance in public office by failing to respond to his numerous calls for assistance. As it is tort that is non-actionable without proof of damage, the Court of Appeal was concerned with the question of whether the superimposition of transient “somatised physical symptoms of anxiety such as numbness and discomfort in the left arm and left leg” was sufficient. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was unanimous in its conclusion that this did not amount to material damage.
The practical application of this principle is straightforward. To advance a claim it is necessary first to obtain expert psychiatric evidence diagnosing an illness recognised by a consensus of professional opinion, such as those contained within The World Health Organisation’s Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorder (ICD-10), or the American Psychiatric Association’s statistical diagnostic criteria (DSM 5). Any psychiatric injury will suffice, however peculiar: Hinz v Berry  2 QB 40. In reality the psychiatrist’s first port of call is the patient’s medical history. Absent any past GP attendances presenting with symptoms of psychological illness it is likely that the individual’s condition will be seen as ‘sub clinical’, for which read non-actionable.
If there’s one thing that lawyers enjoy more than Latin then it’s laws that they can disregard. Having illustrated the rule, therefore, in the next post we shall examine its exceptions.