Nervous shocks boundaries confirmed by the Court of Appeal - DAC Beachcroft

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Nervous shocks boundaries confirmed by the Court of Appeal

Published On: 8 July 2015

The legal test for nervous shock claims by secondary victims (i.e. those who witness the suffering or imperilling of another) was the subject of the Court of Appeal's judgment in Liverpool Women's Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v Ronayne which was handed down on 17 June 2015.

The court considered the boundaries set by previous cases including the leading cases arising from the Hillsborough disaster and more recent cases arising in hospital settings as the Claimant sought to extend the class of potential Claimants following an incidence of clinical negligence.

The test for nervous shock claims by secondary victims requires them to establish that they have suffered a recognised psychiatric condition as a consequence of directly witnessing a sudden shocking event or its immediate aftermath and also that they have a close tie of love and affection with the primary victim.  In this case, the court was required to consider whether the Claimant's condition resulted from witnessing a sudden shocking event.

Mr Ronayne sought damages having witnessed a deterioration in his wife's condition following the negligent performing of a hysterectomy.  Two specific episodes were distressing to him, the first before she underwent further surgery when he saw her connected to machines including drips and monitors and the second following that surgery when she was unconscious and connected to a ventilator.  However, on both occasions he had been advised of her condition and conditioned to what he was about to see by her treating clinicians before he saw her.

His claim was differentiated from the case of North Glamorgan NHS Trust v Walters (2003) in which a mother witnessed her son suffering a fit (as a consequence of a hospital's negligence) and his condition then deteriorating until the point where life support was withdrawn.  In contrast, Mr Ronayne's psychiatric condition was deemed to have resulted from a series of separate events that gave rise to an accumulation of gradual assaults on his mind rather than one single event or (as in Walters) an inexorable progression.  In addition, the fact that he was conditioned to what he was about to witness by the clinicians removed the necessary element of suddenness and what he witnessed was not sufficiently horrifying to found a claim.  His claim therefore fell at the first hurdle.

This judgment illustrates the strict limits which are placed on nervous shock claims by secondary victims for policy reasons and should limit the circumstances in which relatives attending on loved ones in hospital may pursue claims for their resulting psychiatric distress.