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This was the question in the recent High Court decision in Easton v B&Q plc. Whilst very fact-specific, the conclusion in this case was 'no'.
The claimant in this case, Mr Easton, was a high performing store manager who became ill with depression through stress from work and was signed off work for five months. Mr Easton returned to work on an agreed phased basis which was unsuccessful and he was subsequently re-certified as unfit for work with depression.
Mr Easton brought a claim against his employer, asserting that he became ill through occupational stress and that this occupational stress was due to the negligence and/or breach of statutory duty on the part of his employer, B&Q. Mr Easton claimed damages in the region of £1 million for psychiatric injury caused by occupational stress.
B&Q accepted that Mr Easton had suffered a psychiatric illness and that the illness, at least in substantial measure, was caused by occupational stress. Its primary case was that Mr Easton's illness was not foreseeable at any stage. B&Q claimed that it did not act in breach of any duty whether prior to the onset of the psychiatric illness or at the time of the return to work.
The High Court considered whether Mr Easton's injury was reasonably foreseeable by B&Q and concluded on the facts of this case that Mr Easton's depression was not foreseeable at any stage. As a result, Mr Easton's claim for damages failed.
The High Court clarified that an employee who returned to work after a period of sickness without qualification implied that he believed himself to be fit to work as before.
The High Court found that the fact that Mr Easton was taking medication when he returned to work was not determinative on how the situation should be handled by B&Q. It is not uncommon for employees to be taking medication whilst still in work and it does not mean that a relapse was foreseeable by the employer.
The High Court also considered the fact that B&Q had not carried out a general risk assessment for Mr Easton and held that this was not a breach of their duty as an employer. B&Q had a policy for staff on managing stress, in which employees were advised to notify their employer of any symptoms of the illness. The Judge found that Mr Easton had not done this and that in any case, a risk assessment would not have affected the outcome.
The judgment in Easton v B&Q signals no departure from previous case law in this area.
This case is however a useful reminder to employers that the foreseeability threshold in damages claims for psychiatric injury is high. There is no general obligation on employers to make searching or intrusive enquiries of employees on a return to work after a period of sickness absence and employers may take at face value what employees tell them. Nonetheless, it should also be noted that stress cases are highly fact specific and each case should be considered on its own circumstances.