This article is authored by Kirti Bhushan, a student of Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi. The author seeks to explain briefly the role of the present case in the growth of the concept of nervous shock in one branch of Law i.e. Law of Torts.
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Relevant Concepts of Law
Nervous Shock and Negligence under the Law of Torts.
Brief Facts of the Case
The plaintiff, in the present case, was standing behind the bar of a public house at the Bonner Arms in Bethnal Green from the roadway. She was pregnant at the time when the incident happened. Then the defendant’s servant negligently drove horse-drawn carriage into the building of the public house. The horse-drawn carriage did not hit the plaintiff because the defendant stopped it just before the carriage was about to hit her. As consequents to such incident, the plaintiff suffered from a shock and gave birth after nine days of the incident prematurely to a baby who was said to be an idiot by the plaintiff. The plaintiff then claimed damages for the tort of negligence against White and sons. The plaintiff further sought damages for the shock which was caused to her by the incident. The defendants contended that the tort of negligence requires physical injury which was, in the present case, too remote. The defendants further claimed that the psychiatric harm suffered by the plaintiff, due to the fear of getting hit, was not foreseeable and thus, they are not liable to pay any damages to her.
Issues Before the Court
Whether fear alone was enough to create a mental injury claim in the present case?
Ratio of the Case
The court was of the opinion that although the plaintiff had not suffered any physical injury, the traumatic incident, of the driver losing control over the horses and thereby driving them into the building where the plaintiff was working behind her husband’s bar, led to nervous shock and the premature birth of her child. In this case, mental illness was escorted by a physical injury i.e. miscarriage. Moreover, the plaintiff had established that the ‘nervous shock’ which was caused by the accident, resulted from her fear for her own safety.
In other words, the ‘terror wrongfully induced and inducing physical mischief gives a cause of action.’ The plaintiff could recover in respect of the physical consequences of ‘nervous shock’ caused by reason of ‘reasonable fear of immediate personal injury to oneself’.
In the words of Kennedy, J:
“If impact be not necessary, and if, as must be assumed here, the fear is proved to have naturally and directly produced physical effects, so that the ill results of the negligence which caused the fear are as measurable in damages as the same results would be if they arose from an actual impact, why should not an action for those damages lie just as well as it lies where there has been an actual impact ? It is not, however, to be taken that in my view every nervous shock occasioned by negligence and producing physical injury to the sufferer gives a cause of action. There is, I am inclined to think, at least one limitation. The shock, where it operates through the mind, must be a shock which arises from a reasonable fear of immediate personal injury to oneself.”
Kennedy, J. considered the argument that fear, where physical injury is directly produced by it, cannot be a ground of action merely because of the absence of any accompanying impact, to be ‘both unreasonable and contrary to the weight of authority.’
The argument was unreasonable and contrary to the weight of authority, but Justice Kennedy limited the type of shock for which damages were recoverable to that suffered from fear for oneself only: “The shock, where it operates through the mind, must be a shock which arises from a reasonable fear of immediate personal injury to oneself.”
Justice Kennedy further extrapolated, “Mere fright not followed by consequent physical damage will not support an action, but if it is followed by consequent physical damage, then, if the fright was the natural result of the defendants’ negligence, an action lies, and the physical damage is not too remote to support it.”
Justice Phillimore said, “Where there is a legal duty on the defendant not to frighten the plaintiff by his negligence, then fright with consequent physical damage will support an action.”
Decision of the Court
It was held that an action could lie in negligence for nervous shock which had arisen from a reasonable fear for one’s own (in the present case, plaintiff’s) immediate safety. Such an injury could be compensated.
In obiter, Kennedy, J. suggested this rule might also cover cases where the shock is produced, “by horror or vexation arising from the sight of mischief being threatened or done either to some other person, or to her own or her husband’s property.”
Thus, this case established that a claimant may recover damages in the tort of negligence for psychiatric harm caused to him or her due to the reasonable fear induced by a negligent act of the defendant.
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