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White v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire [1998] 3 WLR 1509  House of Lords

Like the case of Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, this case arose from the disaster that occurred at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield in the FA cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989. South Yorkshire Police had been responsible for crowd control at the football match and had been negligent in directing an excessively large number of spectators to one end of the stadium which resulted in the fatal crush in which 95 people were killed and over 400 were physically injured. Whilst Alcock, involved claims by relatives, this case involved claims for psychiatric injury from police officers who were on duty that day . Their claims differ from those in Alcock, in that they based their claims on the grounds that as employees, the defendant owed them a duty of care not to cause them psychiatric injury as a result of negligence, alternatively they claim as rescuers, which they argued promoted them to primary victims as oppose to secondary victims. At trial Waller J dismissed the claims on both grounds. The Court of Appeal reversed this decision. The Defendant appealed to the House of Lords.

Held:

The appeal was allowed, the claimants were not entitled to recover for the psychiatric injury. (Lord Goff dissenting on both grounds, Lord Griffiths dissenting on the employment ground)

Whilst an employer owes a duty of care to employees not to cause them physical harm and there is some authority supporting claims for psychiatric injury caused by excessive stress imposed by the employer, there is no authority to support a finding of liability for psychiatric injury caused by witnessing horrific injuries to others. With regards to rescuers, their status as rescuers does not automatically place them as primary victims. To amount to a primary victim, even a rescuer must demonstrate that they are in the zone of physical danger. Since, the claimants were not themselves at risk of physical injury, their claims could not succeed.

This case is often explained on the grounds of policy, in that it would be repugnant to allow the police officers to recover where relatives had been denied compensation. This is supported by the following comments:

Lord Steyn:

“it is common ground that police officers who are traumatized by something they encounter in their work have the benefit of statutory schemes which permit them to retire on pension. In this sense they are already better off than bereaved relatives who were not allowed to recover in Alcock. The claim of the police officers on our sympathy, and the justice of the case, is great but not as great as that of others to whom the law denies redress.”

Lord Hoffman:

“But I think that such an extension would be unacceptable to the ordinary person because (though he might not put it this way) it would offend against his notions of distributive justice. He would think it unfair between one class of claimants and another, at best not treating like cases alike and, at worst, favouring the less deserving against the more deserving. He would think it wrong that policemen, even as part of a general class of persons who rendered assistance, should have the right to compensation for psychiatric injury out of public funds while the bereaved relatives are sent away with nothing.”

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