Wednesday Law Report: Police officers were not entitled to damages

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9 December 1998

Frost v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire and others

House of Lords (Lord Browne-Wilkinson, Lord Griffiths, Lord Goff of Chieveley, Lord Steyn and Lord Hoffmann) 3 December 1998

POLICE OFFICERS who suffered psychiatric injury as a result of assisting the victims of a disaster caused by negligence for which the Chief Constable was vicariously liable were not entitled to damages either because their employment relationship gave rise to duties which were not owed to strangers, nor as rescuers.

The House of Lords (Lord Griffiths and Lord Goff dissenting) allowed the appeal of the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire against the decision of the Court of Appeal that the plaintiffs were entitled to damages in negligence for psychiatric injury suffered as a result of the Hillsborough disaster.

The plaintiffs were serving members of the South Yorkshire police force on duty at the Hillsborough football stadium or elsewhere on the day that 95 people were crushed to death on the terraces, and many more were injured, as a result of the pressure of the crowds trying to get into the ground.

Two of the plaintiffs had helped to carry the dead and dying; two had had tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate those who had been laid out on the ground; another had assisted at the hospital mortuary. As a result of their experiences, they had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, which had affected their ability to work and their private lives.

Andrew Collender QC and Patrick Limb (Hammond Suddards, Leeds) for the Chief Constable; Benet Hytner QC and Graham Platts (Russell Jones & Walker, Sheffield) for the plaintiffs.

Lord Hoffmann said that the plaintiffs claimed that the police were in a position analagous to employees of the Chief Constable, and that the employment relationship gave rise to duties which were not owed to strangers.

The liability of an employer to his employees for negligence was not a separate tort with its own rules. It was an aspect of the general law of negligence. It would not be fair in principle to give police officers the right to a larger claim than others merely because the disaster was caused by the negligence of other policemen.

The plaintiffs also claimed that they were not bystanders or spectators, but participants in the sense that they had actually done things to help, and that there was an analogy between their position and that of a rescuer who, on the basis of the decision in Chadwick v British Railways Board [1967] 1 WLR 912, was said to be treated as a primary victim.

The cases on rescuers, however, were quite simply illustrations of the application of general principles of fore- seeability and causation to particular facts.

There was no logical reason why the normal treatment of rescuers on the issues of foreseeability and causation should lead to the conclusion that, for the purposes of psychiatric injury, they should be given special treatment as primary victims when they were not within the range of foreseeable physical injury, and their psychiatric injury was caused by witnessing or participating in the aftermath of accidents which caused death or injury to others.

Liability for psychiatric injury to rescuers who gave assistance at or after some disaster without coming within the range of foreseeable physical injury should not be extended. Once the concept of a rescuer as someone who put himself in physical danger was extended to include others who gave assistance, the line between them and bystanders became difficult to draw with any precision.

Furthermore, such an extension of liability would be unacceptable to the ordinary person because 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 had rendered assistance, should have the right to compensation for psychiatric injury out of public funds while the bereaved relatives were sent away with nothing.