Pratley v Surrey County Council [2003] EWCA Civ 1067

Stress – psychiatric injury – forseeability


This was an appeal from a High Court decision, dismissing P’s claim for damages for stress-related personal injury.


P began working for Surrey County Council’s Social Services Department as a case manager for the elderly in 1994. She had worked in other capacities for the Council since 1986. In 1996, she was signed off work by her GP with a diagnosis of “stress”, and did not return to work. It was accepted, for the purpose of the proceedings that she was suffering from a moderate or severe depressive episode which amounted to a recognised mental disorder or psychiatric illness.


It was further accepted that, at the relevant time, case managers worked under considerable pressure due to the demands on their services and a lack of funding. P contended that there was a clear risk of foreseeability of injury resulting from stress and that steps had not been taken to reduce that risk. In particular, a promise by her immediate superior that a system of case “stacking” – whereby no new cases would be allocated until the existing workload had been reduced – would be introduced on her return from holiday, had not been fulfilled.


The Council submitted that it had not been put on specific notice of the risk to P. Further, the Council provided access to confidential stress counselling, occupational health facilities and a private health scheme through BUPA and P had regular meetings with her line manager to monitor and discuss any problems and argued that it could not reasonably have done more.


The judge considered the guidance in Hatton v Sutherland  with particular reference to foreseeability of risk of injury. In particular, it was not sufficient in itself that the employer was aware that the employee was suffering from stress and pressure at work. There was a crucial difference “between general knowledge that stress can (but usually does not) cause illness and knowledge that a real risk has arisen in a particular case”.  In this case, P had concealed from her employer the extent of overtime she found it necessary to undertake and she had concealed the true state of her health from her employer: her GP’s notes recorded “nausea, vertigo and severe headache” whereas her medical certificate for the Council recorded “neuralgia”. In addition, her witness statement recorded that her doctor suggested that the headaches were probably due to stress at work but P had asked him not to record it on the sick note. The judge further found that a conversation between P and her line manager, during which it was alleged that she had complained she was suffering from stress, did not amount to a complaint that would have alerted a reasonable employer, but was in fact a light hearted conversation. Finally, he found that P’s symptoms emerged in the fourth year of her employment with the Council where there had been no variation in workload or other reason for the onset of her symptoms. The judge ruled that the facts did not support a finding that there should have been foreseeability of injury in this particular case and dismissed the claim.


The Court of Appeal upheld the judge’s findings, stating that he was right to approach the foreseeability issue as being whether the risk of immediate collapse was foreseeable, rather than whether collapse in the future was foreseeable. There was no error in the judge’s finding that the risk of illness through continuing work overload over a future period was foreseeable, but that the risk of an immediate collapse as occurred was not. Further, there was no error in the judge’s finding that the failure to implement the stacking system was reasonable. It would not be right to treat the expressed intention to implement that system as setting the standard of reasonableness. It was wrong to suggest that liability in negligence for one kind of injury could flow from unreasonable failure to prevent injury of another kind.

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