Duty of care
Garrod v North Devon NHS Primary Care Trust, High Court (Queen’s Bench Division),28 April 2006
BACKGROUND Mrs Garrod, a health visitor employed by the trust, became ill with depression due to pressure of work, having been repeatedly obliged to cover for a colleague who was off sick. She returned to work six months later but working reduced hours. Subsequently, another colleague went absent, but despite repeated requests for assistance, only one hour’s additional cover was arranged. Two weeks later, Garrod herself went off sick, suffering a relapse of her depression.
She later returned to work with an undertaking from the trust that she would not be required to cover additional caseloads for the foreseeable future. However, when another colleague commenced maternity leave with no replacement cover arranged, leaving Garrod coping with two workloads, within four months she suffered a third breakdown and never returned to work. Her employment was terminated on grounds of ill health.
Garrod brought a claim for damages against the trust for breach of its duty of care in failing to take reasonable steps to avoid exposing her to an excessive workload.
DECISION The claim succeeded. The psychiatric injury suffered by Garrod was reasonably foreseeable, particularly the second and third breakdowns in light of the knowledge of her vulnerability following her initial absence.
The trust had breached its duty by failing to take steps to replace absent staff. ‘Bank’ staff were available and, given the size and scope of the trust, it was reasonable to expect that cover for absent staff would be provided.
COMMENT Employers owe a duty to provide employees with a reasonably safe system of work, and to take steps to protect them from reasonably foreseeable risks. In this case, the employee was vulnerable; she had already suffered from illness attributable to stress at work. Garrod had warned her employer that unless cover for absent staff was provided, there was a risk of injury. The employer offered little or no support.
Although damages were reduced to reflect the employee’s vulnerability following her initial breakdown, a total of £29,000 was awarded.