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McLoughlin v O'Brian [1983] 1 AC  House of Lords

The claimant’s husband and three of her children were involved in a serious road traffic accident in which their car was struck by a lorry due to the negligence of the defendant lorry driver. Unfortunately one of the children was killed on impact. An ambulance took the injured parties to hospital. Another of the claimant’s sons was a passenger in a car behind the family. The driver took him home and told his mother of the incident and immediately drove her to the hospital. She saw her family suffering before they had been treated and cleaned up. As a result she suffered severe shock, organic depression and a personality change. She brought an action against the defendant for the psychiatric injury she suffered. The Court of Appeal held that no duty of care was owed. She appealed to the House of Lords.

Held:

The appeal was allowed and the claimant was entitled to recover for the psychiatric injury received. The House of Lords extended the class of persons who would be considered proximate to the event to those who come within the immediate aftermath of the event.

Lord Wilberforce:

“Experience has shown that to insist on direct and immediate sight or hearing would be impractical and unjust and that under what may be called the " aftermath " doctrine, one who, from close proximity comes very soon upon the scene, should not be excluded…. and by way of reinforcement of " aftermath " cases, I would accept, by analogy with " rescue " situations, that a person of whom it could be said that one could expect nothing else than that he or she would come immediately to the scene—normally a parent or a spouse, could be regarded as being within the scope of foresight and duty. Where there is not immediate presence, account must be taken of the possibility of alterations in the circumstances, for which the defendant should not be responsible.Subject only to these qualifications, I think that a strict test of proximity by sight or hearing should be applied by the courts."

Back to lecture outline on negligently inflicted psychiatric injury in tort law