Corr (Administratrix of Corr, deceased) v IBC Vehicles Ltd

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeLORD BINGHAM OF CORNHILL,LORD SCOTT OF FOSCOTE,LORD WALKER OF GESTINGTHORPE,LORD MANCE,LORD NEUBERGER OF ABBOTSBURY
Judgment Date27 February 2008
Neutral Citation[2008] UKHL 13
Date27 February 2008
CourtHouse of Lords
Corr (Administratix of The Estate of Thomas Corr (Deceased))
(Respondent)
and
IBC Vehicles Limited
(Appellants)

[2008] UKHL 13

Appellate Committee

Lord Bingham of Cornhill

Lord Scott of Foscote

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Lord Mance

Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury

HOUSE OF LORDS

Appellants:

Jeremy Cousins QC

John Brennan

Justin Kitson

(Instructed by Moran & Co)

Respondents:

John Foy QC

Andrew Ritchie

Robert McAllister

(Instructed by Rowley Ashworth)

LORD BINGHAM OF CORNHILL

My Lords,

1

The issue in this appeal is whether loss attributable to the death by suicide of the late Mr Thomas Corr is recoverable by his dependent widow under section 1 of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 in this action against his former employer.

2

Mr Corr was employed as a maintenance engineer by the appellant company ("the employer"), a manufacturer of light commercial vehicles. On 22 June 1996, then aged almost 31, he was working on a prototype line of presses which produced panels for Vauxhall vehicles. He was working, with another, to remedy a fault on an automated arm with a sucker for lifting panels. The machine picked up a metal panel from the press, without warning, and moved it forcibly in Mr Corr's direction. He would have been decapitated had he not instinctively moved his head. He was struck to the right side of his head and most of his right ear was severed.

3

As a result of this accident, Mr Corr underwent long and painful reconstructive surgery. He remained disfigured, suffered persistently from unsteadiness, mild tinnitus and severe headaches, and had difficulty in sleeping. He also suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. He experienced severe flashbacks which caused his body to jolt, and suffered from nightmares. He drank more alcohol than before the accident and became bad-tempered.

4

Also as a result of the accident, Mr Corr became depressed, a condition which worsened with the passage of time. He was referred to hospital for treatment for depression on 6 February 2002, and was admitted to hospital after taking an overdose of drugs on 18 February. He was assessed as being a significant suicide risk on 2 March 2002, and on 9 March it was noted that he had recurring thoughts of jumping from a high building. He was treated with electro-convulsive therapy. It was noted in his NHS care plan on 15 April that he felt life was not worth living and that he felt he was a burden to his family. On 20 May 2002 Mr Corr was examined by a clinical psychologist who noted that Mr Corr felt helpless and admitted to suicidal ideation. The psychologist diagnosed his condition as one of "severe anxiety and depression". On 23 May 2002, while suffering from an episode of severe depression, Mr Corr committed suicide by jumping from the top of a multi-storey car park in which he had parked his car some hours earlier. A note which he left behind graphically illustrates the depth of desperation to which he had been reduced. Nearly six years had passed since the accident.

5

The facts summarised above are agreed between the parties, as are the facts of Mr Corr's mental and psychological condition at the time of his death. On the one hand, he had the capacity to manage his own affairs. His intellectual abilities were not affected. His appreciation of danger was not lessened. He was aware of the likely consequences of jumping from a high building. He acted deliberately with the intention of killing himself. He had from time to time since the accident thought of taking his own life but had hesitated because of the effect on his family. He understood the difference between right and wrong. He knew the nature and quality of his acts. He did not suffer from hallucinations. It would seem clear, had the question arisen, that his mental condition would not have met the M'Naghten test of insanity. On the other hand, at the time of his death Mr Corr was severely depressed. His depression had caused him to experience feelings of hopelessness. These became increasingly difficult to resist. A critical change took place in the balance of his thinking, when he stopped recognising these feelings of hopelessness as symptoms of his depressive illness, and instead they came to determine his reality. At the time of his suicide Mr Corr was suffering from a disabling mental condition, namely a severe depressive episode which impaired his capacity to make reasoned and informed judgments about his future. It was well known that between one in six and one in ten sufferers from severe depression kill themselves.

6

These proceedings were begun by Mr Corr in June 1999, shortly before expiry of the three year limitation period, claiming damages for the physical and psychological injuries which he had suffered. The proceedings were amended after his death to substitute his widow and personal representative as claimant. She claims for the benefit of Mr Corr's estate pursuant to the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1934 and also for herself as a dependant of the deceased under the 1976 Act. The first of these claims has not been contentious. The second is a claim to recover the financial loss attributable to Mr Corr's suicide, and that alone is in issue in this appeal.

7

Before turning to the issue which divides the parties, I think it helpful to record and recapitulate the significant points which are common ground between them. First, the employer accepts that it owed a duty to Mr Corr as its employee to take reasonable care to avoid causing him personal injury. Personal injury must be understood as embracing both physical and psychological injury. That is the effect of the decision of the House in Page v Smith [1996] AC 155, which neither party criticises or invites the House to review. (The case is not of course authority for the medical premises on which it rests). It is common ground, secondly, that the employer was in breach of its duty to Mr Corr and that this breach caused the accident on 22 June 1996. So much was admitted on the pleadings. It is common ground, thirdly, that as a consequence of this breach Mr Corr suffered severe physical injuries and mental and psychological injury for which, up to the date of his death, he could have recovered damages had he survived, and for which his personal representative is entitled to recover damages for his estate. It is agreed, fourthly, that the depressive illness from which Mr Corr suffered before and at the time of his death was caused by the accident. There was nothing in his background or history to suggest that he suffered in this way before his accident. Finally, it is common ground, as already noted, that it was his depressive illness which drove Mr Corr to take his own life.

8

Analysed in terms of section 1(1) of the 1976 Act, the question to be decided is whether Mr Corr's death was caused by a wrongful act, namely the employer's breach of duty. In the context of what is agreed, however, the real issue dividing the parties in this case, compendiously expressed, is whether, for one reason or another, the damages claimed by Mrs Corr under the 1976 Act are too remote. In this context both parties relied on Lord Rodger of Earlsferry's recent summary of principle in Simmons v British Steel plc [2004] UKHL 20, [2004] ICR 585, para 67, a summary which neither side questioned although they laid emphasis on different propositions. That opinion was given in an appeal from Scotland, but it was not suggested that the law in the two jurisdictions is now different in any relevant respect. The summary reads:

"67 These authorities suggest that, once liability is established, any question of the remoteness of damage is to be approached along the following lines which may, of course, be open to refinement and development. (1) The starting point is that a defender is not liable for a consequence of a kind which is not reasonably foreseeable: McKew v Holland & Hannen & Cubitts (Scotland) Ltd 1970 SC (HL) 20, 25 per Lord Reid; Bourhill v Young [1943] AC 92, 101 per Lord Russell of Killowen; Allan v Barclay 2 M 873, 874 per Lord Kinloch. (2) While a defender is not liable for damage that was not reasonably foreseeable, it does not follow that he is liable for all damage that was reasonably foreseeable: depending on the circumstances, the defender may not be liable for damage caused by a novus actus interveniens or unreasonable conduct on the part of the pursuer, even if it was reasonably foreseeable: McKew v Holland & Hannen & Cubitts (Scotland) Ltd 1970 SC (HL) 20, 25 per Lord Reid: Lamb v Camden London Borough Council [1981] QB 625; but see Ward v Cannock Chase District Council [1986] Ch 546. (3) Subject to the qualification in (2), if the pursuer's injury is of a kind that was foreseeable, the defender is liable, even if the damage is greater in extent than was foreseeable or it was caused in a way that could not have been foreseen: Hughes v Lord Advocate [1963] AC 837, 847 per Lord Reid. (4) The defender must take his victim as he finds him: Bourhill v Young [1943] AC 92, 109-110 per Lord Wright; McKillen v Barclay Curle & Co Ltd 1967 SLT 41, 42, per Lord President Clyde. (5) Subject again to the qualification in (2), where personal injury to the pursuer was reasonably foreseeable, the defender is liable for any personal injury, whether physical or psychiatric, which the pursuer suffers as a result of his wrongdoing: Page v Smith [1996] AC 155, 197F-H per Lord Lloyd."

Lord Rodger's summary conveniently introduces the submissions advanced and skilfully developed by Mr Cousins QC for the employer, which were that Mr Corr's suicide (1) fell outside the duty of care owed to him by the employer ("the scope of duty issue"); (2) was not an act which was reasonably foreseeable and therefore not one for which the employer should be held liable ("the...

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