Stress – Foreseeability – Psychiatric Vulnerability
C was a former Town Clerk. She had a history of psychiatric illness and had been in receipt of counselling. In November 1997 she was away from work, suffering from bronchitis. She was asked to come in to sign some accounts. She came in but refused to sign the accounts, saying that she needed time to consider the information as signing would make her formally responsible for it.
A sub committee meeting of the Town Council took the view that her conduct was unreasonable and decided to give her a verbal warning, which was sent to her under cover of a letter. The letter upset her and she became depressed. The Town Council first decided to withdraw the letter, but later decided to ratify it. C suffered a nervous breakdown, and sued the Council for psychiatric injury claiming that the former mayor (A), with whom she had a friendship outside work and who was a member of the Town Council, knew that she had been seeing a counsellor. She also claimed that she had talked of family problems with the mayor (B), but did not have as close a relationship with B as with A. B denied any specific knowledge about C’s psychiatric history or psychiatric vulnerability and A said that although they were quite good friends, she knew nothing of C’s psychiatric condition. The case before the judge was presented on the basis that there had been a breach of trust and confidence due to the excessive workload. The first instance judge held that by reason of A and B’s possession of knowledge that C was psychiatrically vulnerable and their awareness that she had been seeing a psychiatric nurse, which A and B must have made clear to the sub-committee, the Council had the requisite knowledge of C’s psychiatric history and condition and had caused or materially contributed to C’s breakdown by its conduct
That decision was overturned on appeal. The Court of Appeal held that, just as any other employer, the Council was entitled to expect C to have the qualities of ordinary robustness. The evidence of the psychiatrist was clear that, in a person of ordinary robustness, which C herself acknowledged was the image she presented to the Council, a nervous breakdown would not, medically at least, be a foreseeable result of a reprimand as to her conduct; on the evidence that was the state of play from the Council’s point of view. Further, C’s assertion that the former Mayor was aware that she had been receiving counselling was not enough to import knowledge on the behalf of the Council.
See also Hatton v Sutherland.