Company liable to pay compensation for suicide following workplace accident

A company has been found liable for the suicide of a former employee who threw himself from the top of a multi-storey car park six years after suffering a serious workplace accident.

In a landmark ruling1, the House of Lords has upheld a Court of Appeal decision (Corr v IBC Vehicles EWCA Civ 601 2007), which found that the accident had triggered severe clinical depression leading to suicide, and that this sequence of events was reasonably foreseeable. The employer, IBC Vehicles, did not dispute its liability for the accident, but argued that it could not be held responsible for Mr Corr taking his own life. The case has important implications for employers who need to be aware of the risk of suicide and serious mental health problems following traumatic events at work, and act accordingly to minimise any distress. For example, one of the Court of Appeal judges called on employers to say “sorry” in such cases, since an apology can be psychologically beneficial to employees who have suffered a personal injury as a result of their employer’s negligence.

Mr Corr worked as a maintenance engineer for IBC Vehicles in Luton, who manufacture light commercial vehicles. On 22 June 1996, he was repairing a fault on a prototype machine press when the machine suddenly picked up a metal panel and moved it forcibly towards him. The court heard that he would have been decapitated had he not instinctively ducked. In the event, he was struck on the right side of his head and his right ear was severed. He underwent long and painful reconstructive surgery but remained disfigured, suffered from severe headaches, flashbacks and tinnitus, as well as having trouble sleeping and suffering from nightmares. He became very seriously depressed and was admitted to hospital in February 2002 after taking an overdose. He was assessed as a significant suicide risk and was treated with electro-convulsive therapy. This did not work and he continued to feel hopeless and worthless, with recurring thoughts of jumping from a high building. On 23 May 2002, some six years after the accident, he jumped from the top of a multi‑storey car park while suffering from an episode of severe depression.

Mr Corr had begun compensation proceedings for the physical and psychological injuries he had suffered in 1999. After his death, his widow was substituted as the claimant, claiming compensation for the benefit of her husband’s estate and also as a dependant of the deceased under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976, on the grounds that the workplace accident caused her husband’s death.

IBC Vehicles admitted liability for the accident and that Mr Corr’s physical and psychological injuries were caused by their breach of care. However, they denied liability to pay compensation for the consequences of his suicide on the grounds that since he was not insane his actions broke the chain of causation and his suicide was not reasonably foreseeable. Initially, this defence succeeded, with the High Court ruling that Mr Corr’s suicide was not reasonably foreseeable. This was overturned on appeal.

In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Sedley referred to the admitted fact that depression was a foreseeable consequence of the employer’s negligence and to the uncontroverted evidence that suicide was a not uncommon sequel of severe depression. He described it as correct but irrelevant that the employer’s duty did not extend to anticipating and preventing suicide. It was not the claimant’s case that it did. But the law drew no distinction, for purposes of foreseeability and causation, between physical and psychological injury and, on the evidence, Mr Corr’s suicide was grounded in post-traumatic depression and nothing else.

Another Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Ward, criticised the company for failing to apologise to Mr Corr, although it admitted liability. A psychiatric report on Mr Corr’s mental state issued 15 months before he died had advised that he would benefit from a full apology. Ward LJ observed: “I do wish the word ‘sorry’ was a word which more frequently found its place in a defendant’s (and more particularly their insurer’s) lexicon, since in human relations it can mean much and should not be thought to cost much.”

On appeal in the House of Lords, IBC Vehicles argued that Mr Corr’s suicide fell outside the duty of care to avoid causing personal injury owed to him by his employer. It was not a reasonably foreseeable act and therefore one for which the employer could not be held liable. They also argued that the suicide was a voluntary act and so amounted to contributory negligence on the part of the deceased.

These arguments were largely rejected by the five law lords, with some dissent over the issue of contributory negligence. Although Mr Corr was not insane at the time of his death, nor was he fully responsible, as he would not have acted in the way he did if it had not been for the severe post-traumatic depression brought on by the accident. Before the accident he had been a happy family man, with no depressive or suicidal tendencies. Suicide is not an uncommon outcome of severe depression – estimates suggest that between one in six and one in 10 people with severe depression commit suicide – and, according to Lord Bingham, ” a reasonable employer would, I think, have recognised the possibility not only of acute depression but also of such depression culminating in [suicide] It is in no way unfair to hold the employer responsible for this dire consequence of its breach of duty, although it could well be thought unfair to the victim not to do so.” Whilst some manifestations of severe depression might be so unusual and unpredictable as to be outside the bounds of what was reasonably foreseeable, suicide could not be so regarded.

The issue of contributory negligence was not addressed in detail in the main ruling, but three of the five judges considered that there was an element of personal responsibility in the act of suicide and that a defendant such as IBC might succeed in arguing for a reduction in damages in some circumstances where suicide is committed in a state of depression induced by a traumatic event.

The employer’s appeal was dismissed, with costs.

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