Employer liable for worker’s suicide
A landmark legal ruling has held an employer responsible for the suicide of an employee. Trevor Sterling analyses the decision
When Thomas Corr, a maintenance man employed by IBC Vehicles, was seriously injured in a workplace accident in June 1996, it led to such severe depression that he took his own life six years later.
Nearly 13 years on, the House of Lords has finally confirmed that Mr Corr’s employer was responsible for his death.
“It is in no way unfair to hold the employer responsible for this dire consequence of its breach of duty, although it could well be thought unfair to the victim not to do so,” the Law Lords ruled in February 2008.
Thomas Corr, a Unite member, narrowly missed being decapitated when a robot arm shot out of a prototype press line and struck him in the ear. If Mr Corr had not instinctively moved his head, he would almost certainly have been killed.
Much of Mr Corr’s ear was amputated in the incident. It was later reconstructed but he also developed tinnitus, headaches and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which led to severe depression.
This was exacerbated by the constant reminder of the accident due to his appearance and the need for repeated treatment. Although he tried to return to work, he was anxious around machinery and had lost his confidence. He began to suffer the symptoms of clinical depression and made a suicide attempt in February 2002.
He was admitted to a mental health unit and subsequently discharged. But the severity of his depression increased dramatically and the evidence indicated that he began to suffer a sense of hopelessness which led him to believe that there was no way in which treatment could alleviate his suffering.
He killed himself in May 2002 by jumping off the roof of a multi-story car park.
Legal proceedings for compensation for personal injuries and losses were issued against IBC in June 1999. It admitted liability for the accident in November of that year. The claim continued in Mr Corr’s wife’s name after his death and also included a claim on behalf of his dependants for losses resulting from his death. The trial was eventually set for October 2003.
The defendant employer then amended its defence, alleging that the cause of death resulted from the clinical negligence of the psychiatrist who treated Mr Corr before his death rather than as a result of PTSD brought on by the accident.
The employer also brought proceedings against the health authority to this effect. It then further amended its defence raising new issues including contributory negligence by Mr Corr and arguing that the suicide amounted to self inflicted harm rather than being a symptom of depression. The case was transferred to the High Court in 2004.
The High Court
When the case reached the High Court in April 2005 the judge found that the duty of care owed by the employer did not extend to the prevention of suicide and so it was not liable for losses arising from Mr Corr’s death.
The court also ruled that the suicide was not reasonably foreseeable and found it unnecessary to decide the issues raised by the other defences but made some observations in particular, including that there was no known risk of suicide in this case and that suicide was not the act to which the defendant’s duty of care was directed to prevent.
The judge also commented that Mr Corr knew that what he was doing was wrong.
The Court of Appeal
We appealed the High Court decision. The Court of Appeal, in December 2005, overturned the High Court ruling and allowed the appeal.
One of the Court of Appeal judges concluded:
“On the evidence, the accident caused the post traumatic stress disorder, that caused the depression, and the depression caused the suicide. There is a clear causal link between the breach of duty by the defendants and the deceased’s decision to take his own life.”
It was also pointed out that suicide is no longer a crime and the link between what caused the depression and the suicide had not been broken.
And, if the depression was foreseeable, then it was equally foreseeable that the depressed person may take their own life.
The House of Lords
The employer petitioned the House of Lords to overturn the Court of Appeal.
By a unanimous decision the Law Lords dismissed IBC’s appeal and upheld the Court of Appeal judgment that the company was responsible for the death of Thomas Corr. Lord Bingham said:
“Mr Corr’s suicide was not a voluntary, informed decision taken by him as an adult of sound mind, making and giving effect to a personal decision about his future. It was the response of a man suffering from a severe depressive illness which impaired his capacity to make reasoned and informed judgments about his future, such illness being, as is accepted, a consequence of the employer’s [actions].”
In their judgment, the Law Lords mention, that until relatively recently, suicide was illegal. They also highlight the fact that medical knowledge is such now that it is understood that suicide can be an involuntary act if the person involved is depressed, as Mr Corr was, and so it is possible to derive a direct link from an accident that caused depression to the suicide itself.
Many injury victims who suffer from severe psychiatric conditions take intentional decisions that cause themselves loss or harm. If each intentional act had to be foreseen at the time of the employer’s breach of duty, there would be no liability for any of them.
- A teenager who has suffered facial scarring in a road traffic accident and consequently suffers severe depression, becomes anorexic and refuses to eat or becomes bulimic;
- The mesothelioma sufferer who becomes depressed having been diagnosed with a fatal illness and commits suicide.
Such cases are not unique to the extent that they do not require exceptions to the law. In each case, factual causation would be needed and, if established, the claimant should be able to recover compensation. These are all matters that would fail if the defendants understanding of the law had been deemed to be correct by the Court of Appeal.