This case analysis is written by Akshaya V, a student at CMR University, School of Legal Studies, Bangalore.


Negligence is one of the civil wrongs covered under the tort law. In a general sense, the extent of liability in tort is determined by the number of damages a party has incurred. In the instant case, the House of Lords determined another dimension of providing damages for psychiatric harm caused through negligence to the plaintiff.

Equivalent Citations

(1982) 2 All ER 907 (HL)


Lord Wilberforce, Lord Edmund-Davies, Lord Russell of Killowen, Lord Scarman, Lord Bridge of Harwich.

Date of Judgement

6 May 1982

Relevant Law

Law of torts




The husband of the claimant and their children met with an accident after a colliding into lorry driven by the first defendant and owned by the second defendant. One child lost his life and others were severely injured. They were hospitalized for treatment. McLoughlin was informed of this by her neighbor and rushed to the hospital. Upon arrival, she learned that her youngest child was no more and witnessed the extent of injury caused to her husband and other children. Looking at them, she underwent a tremendous shock resulting in psychiatric harm to her and she brought an action against the defendants.

Issues before the Court

  • Is the plaintiff’s plea maintainable?
  • Is the plaintiff sufficiently proximate to the event in question to claim damages for her psychiatric illness?

Points of Determination

Negligence, by its general meaning, is the breach of duty of care resulting in undesirable damages. Where a person fails to exercise the required standard of care as a reasonable man would do in a particular situation. It can also be malfeasance by doing something which should not have been done. The defendant had been negligent in driving that lead to the accident. However, it has to be determined if the defendant owed a duty of care to the claimant in the instant case. To recover damages, the plaintiff has to prove that she was in proximity to the cause of action.

To find if O’brian owes a duty of care towards Mcloughlin, the following points shall have to be determined –

  1. Duty of care – This is one of the essential conditions to hold a person liable for a negligent act. The duty should be legal and shall not be unlawful or immoral. Therefore, it has to be ensured it is done with a duty of care. In the above case, the defendant has not shown a duty of care towards driving which resulted in an accident.
  2. Breach of duty to take care – O’brian has breached his duty. He did not observe the standard of care. He should have rather acted wisely and not omitted an act which he was ought to do.
  3. Proximate cause – It means the legal cause. It may not be the first event that may occur in a sequence of events and may not be the last event before the injury occurs. A defendant in a negligence case is only liable for only those damages within his contemplation and could have foreseen through his actions. In the above case, the collision may have been foreseen by O’brian but the injury caused to the defendant may not have been foreseen.
  4. Duty of care towards the plaintiff – A duty arises when the law identifies a relationship between the plaintiff and defendant. The establishment of a duty of care towards the plaintiff is determined by the Court. In the instant case, there is no established relationship between O’brian and McLoughlin. The duty of care should have been established by O’brian towards the family that was driving on the opposite side.
  5. Actual cause or cause in fact – The plaintiff who is suing the defendant for negligence has the liability to prove that the defendant’s violation of duty was the actual cause of damage incurred by him. Here, McLoughlin does not have an actual cause but an incidental cause thus not falling a direct victim to the defendant’s action.

The Ratio of the Case

The House of Lords, in determining the ratio of the case said that the duty of the defendant is extended to those who came immediately after the accident, even if they did not witness the incident. The house of Lord determined the circumstances in which the plaintiff would succeed.

  1. Damages are not awarded for grief and loss. However, it shall be awarded for nervous shock caused by negligence without showing the direct impact.
  2. The plaintiff may also recover damages for a nervous shock if the injury caused to a person is their near relative.
  3. Three classes of persons whose claims are to be recognized –
  4. The means by which the shock was caused and the proximity of the person to the accident.
  5. A shock in its nature is capable of affecting a wide range of people, an emphasis has to be given only to a certain extent. For instance, a close relative of the victim.
  6. As regards proximity, it must both in time and space. The time shall be immediate or “immediate aftermath” of the incident. Space means in and around the place of incident.  The shock shall come through sight or hearing about the event or of its immediate aftermath. 


The trial Judge held in favor of McLoughlin and said the defendants owed a duty of care to the claimant.

The Court of Appeal Judgement held the psychiatric illness was foreseeable and a duty of care was owed to McLoughlin. However, Mcloughlin was not allowed to recover damages.

Lord Wilberforce held that ‘one who comes very soon upon the scene, should not be excluded under the “aftermath doctrine”. Normally a parent or a spouse could be regarded as being within the scope of foresight and duty. The class of persons who could be considered proximate to the event are those who come within the immediate aftermath of the event. The appeal was allowed and the claimant was entitled to receive compensation for psychiatric illness.’

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