Police officers who incurred severe psychiatric injuries on duty during the Hillsborough disaster cannot be awarded damages from their chief constable, a High Court judge ruled yesterday in Sheffield. Mr Justice Waller's judgment in effect drew a legal boundary around the pens of terracing in which 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death at the 1989 FA Cup semi- final.
Police who retrieved corpses from inside the fenced terracing had sought damages for the post-traumatic stress disorder their gruesome duties caused. South Yorkshire Police has settled out of court with 14 officers deployed inside the pens, but denied liability in 23 other cases, six of which were tested in court. The court accepted the disaster was caused by a failure of crowd control for which the chief constable was responsible. The officers argued that they had dealt with "purple-faced corpses, hideous to behold". Some told the court of harrowing tasks performed on the pitch as casualties were brought out, in the makeshift mortuary, and at a hospital morgue.
The judge's ruling, described by lawyers as "particularly detailed and complex", was hailed by relatives of Hillsborough victims, who sought without success damages for the trauma of seeing their loved ones killed. The law for police coping with the aftermath of the disaster was different. It hinged on their role as rescuers, the judge said.
It had been established that people involved indirectly in disastrous events must be expected to have "a fortitude to endure" the calamities of modern life. For people such as bystanders whose involvement could not be foreseen there was no case for damages because of the negligence of someone else. For individuals who act as rescuers, the judge said the law drew a very narrow definition which made them eligible for damages.
Only one of the six cases before the court, Inspector Henry White, could be regarded as a rescuer. He had entered the ground to see pressed against the fences blue faces of spectators he knew were dead. He joined a chain passing victims from the pens to the pitch. He had dealt with a 15-year- old boy "snatching for breath".
The judge said Insp White had not been in greater proximity to the disaster and its aftermath than some bystanders. If it was unreasonable according to the law to award damages to a bystander, then it was wrong to uphold Insp White's claim, the judge said. In four of the other cases, the judge said he was not satisfied that shock induced their injuries.
The judge did not deal at length with a major element in the officers' case. They argued that the chief constable owed them special responsibility for the injuries they incurred at Hillsborough because it was the negligence of senior police officers which caused the disaster.
None of the officers was in court to hear the ruling. Their solicitor, Simon Allen, said they would consider an appeal. He added: "I am very disappointed at the judgment. We have to study the decision very fully and decide where we will go from here."
Richard Wells, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, said the judgment would be met with "a sense of relief by the whole of the police service". He added: "It will send a very clear signal that when members of the public take the oath of allegiance for the office of constable, they are to expect hardship, danger, death, and to some extent, disaster."Reuse content