Student Lawyer Blog: Can an employer be held responsible for the suicide of a workplace accident victim?

//Student Lawyer Blog: Can an employer be held responsible for the suicide of a workplace accident victim?

Case: Corr v IBC Vehicles [2006] EWCA Civ 331

By Stefanie Stefanova

 

Employers are legally obliged to safeguard their employees at the workplace.

Generally, claimants must prove that the harm they have suffered is a predictable consequence of the actions, or inaction, of the defendant.
In order for a claimant to break the chain of events, his actions must be entirely unreasonable in the given circumstances.

 

workplace accidentThis issue was considered in Corr v IBC Vehicles [2008].

Mr Corr was one of the employees of the defendant working as a maintenance engineer. In 1996, Mr Corr suffered serious injuries in an accident caused by a malfunctioning machine.  His employer admitted this had been caused by a breach of their duty of care towards Mr Corr. After the accident, Mr Corr began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which resulted in depression.

Before the accident, he was a different person – a happily-married man. After the accident, he was diagnosed as suffering from severe anxiety and depression. He had taken an overdose and was later assessed to be at a high risk of committing suicide. He often thought about jumping off a high building as he considered himself to be a ’burden on the family’.

On 23rd May 2002, Mr Corr committed suicide by jumping from the top of a multi-storey car park.

Mrs Corr, his wife, brought a claim against Mr Corr’s employer under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 for bereavement damages. She also made a claim for compensation on behalf of Mr Corr’s estate.

Her claim under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 was unsuccessful, but she was awarded £85,000 for the claim on behalf of the estate.

Mrs Corr appealed and the Court of Appeal overturned the previous decision. Mr Corr’s employers then appealed to the House of Lords.

It was held that Mr Corr’s suicide was an act which did not break the causal link between the accident and his death. He suffered from an accident caused by a malfunctioning machine (it is the employer’s duty to make sure that the machines are fit for use).

The chain of events leading to Mr Corr’s death was started by the workplace accident which was caused by the breach of the employer’s duty. If the employer had inspected the machines and detected the malfunctioning machine, Mr Corr would not have suffered any injuries and would not have suffered from depression which caused him to take his own life.

In order to find out whether the defendant is liable, one must determine whether there is:

  1. A duty of care – Employers owe a duty of care to their employees.
  2. A breach of the duty – In this case, the breach was the fact that the employer did not inspect the machines and did not detect the faulty one.
  3. Causation: The Corr case’s main issue was whether there was a direct causal link between the workplace accident and Mr Corr’s suicide.

Causation is split into two requirements (factual and legal causation), both of which must be satisfied.

A)     Factual Causation – This often uses the ‘But for’ test: i.e. But for the actions of the defendant would the harm have occurred? To determine whether the defendant’s breach of duty has had a negative impact on the claimant, a hypothetical question must be asked: what would have happened to the claimant if the defendant’s actions, or inaction, had never occurred. The burden of proof is on the claimant who has to establish that on the ‘balance of probabilities’ the defendant’s breach of duty brought harm to the claimant.

B)     Legal Causation – This tests the strength of the link between the accident and the harm in question. It looks at remoteness and the existence of any intervening acts.  Test for remoteness: Is the type of harm suffered by the claimant reasonably foreseeable as a consequence of the defendant’s breach of duty? This relates to the type of harm the claimant is suing for. The claimant must show that the harm could have been reasonably foreseen given the defendant’s conduct.

Intervening acts: This looks at whether acts other than the defendant’s conduct have played a significant role in causing the harm in question. These could be:

1) Intervening acts of nature: must be unpredictable, uncontrollable and independent of the act of the defendant.

2) Intervening acts of a third party: if the intervening act of a third party is thought to be likely, then the defendant would remain liable.

3) Intervening acts of the claimant: Are the claimant’s actions reasonable in the circumstances? If the claimant’s actions are determined to be unreasonable, then the defendant would not be held liable for the harm caused.

 

In the case, the House of Lords held that Mr Corr’s suicide did not constitute an intervening act. It was not an informed, voluntary decision on Mr Corr’s part, and the court held there was no cause other than Mr Corr’s depression that led to his suicide. Thus, no break in the chain of causation could have been established as Mr Corr’s actions were a reasonably foreseeable outcome of the workplace accident.

By | 2018-09-10T14:52:51+00:00 September 6th, 2018|Student Case Blogs|

About the Author:

Stefanie Stefanova
Stefanie Stefanova is a final year law student at the University of Birmingham. She graduated from the American College of Sofia, Bulgaria where she found her passion for law. Stefanie is not only a devoted law student, but she is also an active volunteer and a treasurer for a charity organisation. She will be doing a Master’s degree next year and aspires to become a solicitor.