Joseph Conrad’s famous line, “the horror, the horror” from The Heart of Darkness, still has the power to chill readers of the short novel to the bone. Fortunately, most of us will never experience truly shocking events that will scorch their way into our brain and remain a permanent fixture to haunt us forever. But some people do. And in certain circumstances, it is possible to claim compensation for a psychiatric injury as a secondary victim.
Death by meat grinder
You may think that workplace accidents could not be horrific enough to warrant a claim for psychiatric injury. But the following example may make you rethink.
In 2013, Hugo Avalos Chanon was working as part of a sanitation crew at a meat packing factory in Oregon, USA, when something went tragically wrong. It has never been established whether the machine Hugo was cleaning was meant to be switched on or whether it was accidentally started during the cleaning process. Whatever might be the case, Mr. Chanon fell headfirst into the machine. The job of this industrial grinder was to separate the excess fat from ground beef. A fellow worker rushed to his aid and tried desperately to switch the machine off and pull the screaming man to safety, but it was sadly too late. He died from crushing and chopping injuries.
In a similar case, it could be possible that a claim for psychiatric injury as a secondary victim under English law could be made, but strict criteria must be satisfied.
The leading case, Alcock v Chief Constable  4 All ER 907
Alcock v Chief Constable sets out the test that courts will use when establishing whether there is a viable claim for psychiatric injury for a secondary victim to a disaster.
This case arose out of the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy in Sheffield during the FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989. South Yorkshire Police had been responsible for crowd control at the football match and had been negligent in directing an excessively large number of spectators to one end of the stadium which resulted in the fatal crush in which 95 people were killed and over 400 were physically injured. The scenes were broadcast live on television and repeated on news broadcasts. Sixteen claims were brought against the defendant for nervous shock resulting in psychiatric injury. In the first instance, ten of the claims were successful. The defendant appealed against the findings in nine and the unsuccessful claimants appealed. The Court of Appeal found for the defendants in all the claims. Ten appeals were made to the House of Lords. These included claims made by brothers, sisters, parents, a grandparent and a fiancé. Two of the claimants had been at the ground but in a different area. Some had seen the events unfold on the television, some had heard about the events in other ways.
Some had identified bodies at the makeshift mortuary.
The House of Lords dismissed all the appeals.
The court laid down strict control mechanisms to avoid opening the gates to an avalanche of claims from secondary victims. They are:
- There must be a close tie of love and affection between the claimant and the victim.
- The claimant must have been present at the accident or its immediate aftermath.
- The psychiatric injury must have been caused by the direct perception of the accident or its immediate aftermath and not by hearing about it from somebody else.’
The House of Lords also stated the claimant is required to show that psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable as a likely consequence of exposure to the trauma of the accident or its immediate aftermath. It also added the law expects reasonable robustness and fortitude from citizens and will not impose liability for the exceptional frailty of certain individuals.
The court also stated the secondary victim must suffer a ‘sudden shock’ to the system.
As a general rule, the more remote the relationship between the secondary and primary victim, the less likely compensation will be awarded. However, Lord Justice Ackner in Alcock would not rule out a passer-by suffering shock-induced psychiatric harm that was reasonably foreseeable, if the circumstances were such that a reasonably strong-nerved person would have been so shocked. He noted the hypothetical example of a petrol tanker careering out of control into a school in session and bursting into flames, indicating that he would not be prepared to rule out a potential claim by a passer-by so shocked by the scene as to suffer psychiatric illness.
Bringing a successful claim for psychiatric injury as a secondary victim is highly complex, and the courts take a very narrow view on who is a ‘secondary victim’ and whether they were in close enough proximity to be eligible for compensation.
At Russell Worth Solicitors we specialise in personal injury claims. If you have suffered an injury because of an accident that was not your fault and would like a free claim assessment, please call us now on 0800 028 2060 or complete our Online Claim Assessment.