In a majority 3-2 decision, the law lords overturned a Court of Appeal judgment in 1996 that the officers should receive damages after being exposed, by the admitted negligence of South Yorkshire Police, to "excessively horrific events such as were likely to cause psychiatric illness even in a police officer".
A victory yesterday for the four officers could have helped potential claims by 17 more police officers and members of other emergency services involved in the disaster, which killed 96 fans.
But one of the law lords, Lord Hoffman, said: "[The ordinary man] 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."
Rose Robinson, of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, had little sympathy for the officers. "As a mother of one of the victims, I wasn't entitled to compensation. I was not deemed to have suffered enough by watching the tragedy unfold on television and knowing my son was there," she said. "If police officers are not prepared to face trauma then they shouldn't be in the job. People are going to lose faith in them if compensation claims like this continue. They will be seen as wimps."
The damages claims of the four officers were originally dismissed by a High Court judge, who held that the officers had not been placed beyond the normal call of duty and were not close enough to the actual scene of the tragedy - unlike 14 others who carried out immediate rescue work inside the spectator pens at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium where many fans were crushed.
Those 14 received a total of pounds 1.2m in agreed damages from insurers for the police, Sheffield Wednesday FC and the club's engineers. But Inspector Henry White and Constables Edward Bairstow, Anthony Bevis and Geoffrey Glave - who treated fans on the pitch - argued that they should be dealt with as "rescuers" who were entitled to damages like other members of the public.
Lord Steyn said police officers who were traumatised by something they encountered in their work had the benefit of statutory schemes, which permitted them to retire on a pension. In that sense, they were already better off than the relatives of those who died.
In 1992, the House of Lords dismissed the claims of relatives who sued for psychiatric injury, including that of a man who witnessed the scenes at the football ground where two of his brothers died.
Simon Allen, the solicitor for the four officers, said the "right of professional rescuers to sue for psychiatric injury has been established by the House of Lords".
Mike Hedges, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, said the ruling was not a cause for celebration. "Police officers join the service with their eyes open to the dangers they face and the standards of fortitude and courage expected of them."Reuse content