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PI and Civil Litigation

Law - practice - procedure

09 JUN 2015

Shorter v Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust [2015] EWHC 614 (QB)

Shorter v Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust [2015] EWHC 614 (QB)
Secondary victim - psychiatric harm

High Court, Queen's Bench Division

25 March 2015

Swift J DBE

Summary
The claimant’s sister’s suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage as a result of the defendant’s negligence and died on 13 May 2009. The claimant suffered nervous shock as a result of the failed diagnosis and claimed damages as a secondary victim. The claim was dismissed on the basis that the claimant had not had sufficient physical proximity and that the required test was an objective one - the fact that the claimant was a nurse would not make the events more horrifying.

Detail

The defendant had admitted negligence and had admitted that but for its negligence, the claimant’s sister would have survived. The defendant had settled a claim by the deceased’s estate and also a claim by her husband for nervous shock.

The claimant was present with her sister from admission until she was pronounced dead. She claimed damages as a secondary victim, stating that she had gone through a single horrendous event starting with the news of the deterioration in her sister’s condition and concluding with her sister’s death. She attended the hospital and saw her in pain. Later that day she received a telephone call from her brother-in-law in which she learnt of the defendant’s negligence and its repercussions by a telephone call. The claimant suffered from a major depressive disorder and sought damages from the defendant trust.


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The defendant had conceded there was a close relationship between the claimant and her sister and the court found that her illness was caused by the event surrounding her sister’s death. The claimant therefore must prove that she had sufficient proximity to the event and that it was caused by a sudden and direct impression on her mind witnessing the event or its aftermath as a result of sight or sound causing an assault to her senses.

The court held that what happened could not be described as a 'seamless single horrifying event' – there were a series of events and much of the claimant’s injury had arisen from information she received by telephone. Information received by telephone calls could not be classed as within “physical proximity”. Additionally, the court held that they could not consider the claimant’s professional expertise when analysing what is a horrific event as the test is objective over whether an event would be recognised as horrifying by a person of ordinary susceptibility.

The case was dismissed. 

Comment
This case demonstrates that secondary victim claims continue to be difficult cases. The courts assertion that the test of horrific event must be an objective one means that a claimant’s particularities should not be taken into account in considering whether the event they perceived was horrifying.

Joseph Carr & Amy Wedgwood, Anthony Gold
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