Liability for employee stress: Deadman v Bristol City Council

The Court of Appeal has considered whether an employer is liable for stress caused to the employee during a grievance investigation.

Deadman was accused of sexual harassment. The council’s policy provided that incidents of harassment should be dealt with sensitively and by a three-person panel. The council only convened a two-person panel to investigate the matter, and Deadman raised a grievance.

The council upheld his grievance, but left a letter on his desk to say that the matter would be re-investigated by a full panel. After seeing the letter, Deadman went off sick with stress, and never returned to work.

Personal injury claim

Deadman brought a personal injury claim against the council in the High Court. It succeeded on the basis that the council was in breach of contract and it was reasonably foreseeable that such breach would cause him a psychiatric illness. The council appealed.

The Court of Appeal overturned the this decision. It considered the council’s contractual obligations, and while it found that it was not obliged to deal with the investigation “sensitively”, the council was in breach of contract by convening a panel of two rather than three. The council was also obliged not to undermine the relationship of mutual trust and confidence.

But to make out his claim, Deadman had to prove that it was reasonably foreseeable that the breach would cause psychiatric harm. He had 30 years’ service and an excellent attendance record. The court found there was nothing to suggest that he was likely to be medically affected by the way the council handled the investigation.

Key points

  • This is the first case about stress induced by procedures at work, rather than by work itself.
  • In this case, it was not foreseeable that the employer’s breach of contract would lead to psychiatric injury.
  • However, where a grievance or disciplinary investigation is handled in breach of contract or in breach of the employer’s duty of care, a personal injury claim will succeed where the injury is foreseeable.

What you should do

  • Comply with contractual obligations when conducting grievances and disciplinary procedures.
  • Act fairly at all times in accordance with the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence.
  • If you know that an employee has a particular vulnerability or problem, take all reasonable steps to prevent any injury to health occurring.

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