It is common knowledge that the law provides a remedy in case a person suffers physical harm or damage caused by the negligence of some other person. But the question is whether there is a legal remedy in case the harm caused is not physical but mental. Modern medical science has accepted mental health to be equivalent to physical health in terms of its importance. So, does the law available at present time sufficient to provide a remedy in such cases?
This article attempts to track the legal history of this domain from the past to the modern era. It enunciates what nervous shock is, what are the circumstances and requirements that call for action in such cases, and also whether there is a common ground reached by the jurists in this area of contention.
What is Nervous Shock?
Nervous shock is a shock that disturbs the equilibrium of the very structure of a person’s brain. It is not mere anxiety or mental pain i.e., the normal range of human emotions that a person experiences after seeing or hearing something drastic or unnatural. Even law doesn’t provide any remedy for such a case, as doing so would open up the doors for everyone because it’s pretty difficult to isolate oneself from any unprecedented event. It’s difficult to give a precise definition of what circumstances constitute a case under nervous shock, but from the decided cases by the Courts, it can be inferred that nervous shock is a reaction to a sudden and horrifying event, which causes visible psychiatric illness to a person. Unlike physical damage, in the case of nervous shock, the damage is caused via the visual or audile senses of a person. The event that causes such far-reaching effects upon a person is generally owed to the negligence on part of the person responsible (defendant) for causing it.
The development in this field of law is of recent emergence. In 1901, in the case, of Dulieu vs White & Sons, an action under nervous shock was acknowledged and such a claim was subjected to a limitation that there must be a fear of immediate personal injury to the person claiming such a shock. In Hambrook vs Stokes Brothers, due to the movement of an unmanned lorry towards her child, a mother sustained nervous shock as a result of fear for the safety of her child. The majority decision, in this case, held that the defendant was liable. It was however later pointed out that the ratio in this decision must be used only in the circumstances where the plaintiff suffered because of the safety of his/her children.
In Bourhill vs Young, the plaintiff was a pregnant fisher-women who was unloading her fish basket from a truck. At the same time, an accident occurred and although she was unharmed, she heard the noise from some distance away and later saw blood on the spot. As a result, she experienced nervous shock and had a miscarriage. It was held by the House of Lords that the plaintiff was not within the area of risk of motor cyclist’s negligent act. She was not allowed to claim damages as the defendant couldn’t foresee that a person standing on the other side of the road would suffer a nervous shock due to his negligent driving.
The view in Hambrook’s case was narrowed down in King vs Philips, where a mother 70 to 80 yards away claimed to have suffered a nervous shock on seeing a taxi driver negligently running into her son while reversing. The boy was unharmed. The Court dismissed her claim based on a test of foreseeability, stating that the driver couldn’t foresee that a mother who was seeing the entire thing from far away would suffer nervous shock. There was a breach of duty on part of the driver but the claim of the plaintiff was held to be too remote in this case. So, what can be inferred from the judgements until this point is that the Courts utilized the doctrine of foreseeability. This doctrine seems to be vague when the nervous shock is the issue. If this rule is followed, a person who is close (but not within) the range of physical harm cannot recover damages, even though the defendant might have foreseen such presence.
The concept of reasonable foreseeability in itself was inept to be the solution to the problem of determining nervous shock. The vagueness of this concept was recognized by the House of Lords in McLoughlin vs O’Brian, and certain exceptions were made. In this case, the plaintiff’s mother although not involved in the accident, later heard that her son and daughter had died and saw the agony of her husband and other children in the hospital. Lord Wilberforce, in this case, gave the basis upon which the modern approach to law is based. The plaintiff’s claim was upheld and three “control mechanisms” were stated. These include-
- The class of the persons claiming;
- Proximity to the accident; and
- How is such a psychiatric impact was caused
These “control mechanisms” were subsequently elaborated upon and upheld unanimously by the Court in Alcock vs Chief Constable of Police. In this case, due to negligence in crowd control on part of police during a football match. Claims, in this case, were brought up by the relatives of those who died or got injured in this accident and by police officers who helped in the aftermath of this mishap.
Regarding the first factor to be considered, the Court stated that the relationship of the secondary victims (those not involved in the area of foreseeable danger) with the immediate victim shall be a close relation of “love and affection”. The Court further held this to be not the absolute condition to recover damages. This implied that a mere bystander (who experienced such a horrific event) may just succeed in recovering damages from nervous shock. As for the second factor of proximity in time and space, the plaintiff needs to witness the accident at the point of its occurrence or in its immediate aftermath.
In regards to the third factor of means of getting a psychiatric shock, the Court stated that the impact caused to the brain must be sudden and not due to subsequent reflections of the event. The people who claimed to have suffered nervous shock via watching the accident on the television failed to satisfy the condition of “suddenness”. The images that they saw provided them with images of the consequences of the accident and their fears were then confirmed upon getting the news of the death of a loved one.
In another case emerging out of the same football stadium accident, White vs Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, claimants were police officers who claimed to have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder while they were on rescue duty. Their claims were rejected because they were not the primary victims as they were not in the area of foreseeable danger. A claim based on nervous shock was made by a man who acted as a rescuer in a serious accident. No person involved in this accident was related to the plaintiff. This case was explained by the Court in White’s case. So, a plaintiff claiming to be a rescuer and suffering psychiatric illness in the participation in such work shall prove all the requirements that need to be proved in the case of secondary victims.
The lacunae in the test of foreseeability that started from Bourhill’s case were finally improved upon by the decision in the White’s case. The origin of the idea in White’s case track back to McLoughlin’s case and Alcock’s case, where several factors were stated to differentiate between psychiatric illness and physical injuries. The scope of compensation to be awarded in such cases was also restricted in a way to award damages only to the genuinely affected party. In India, there hasn’t been any major development in this branch of law. There have been cases where compensation has been awarded for mental agony and most of these cases fall under the ambit of consumer protection. For example, in the case Lucknow Development Authority v M K Gupta, the authority failed to provide a flat as they promised initially and the plaintiff was awarded damages for mental agony caused for this reason. The law still is not complete in itself to enable every genuinely affected plaintiff to recover damages. To improve this domain further, the medical fraternity must work in tandem with the Courts in such cases to reach a plausible solution. Also, the legislature can do its part in framing such laws that are more concrete and help further in providing justice to the affected party.
Author(s) Name: Rishabh Tyagi (Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi)
 Dulieu vs White & Sons, (1901) 2 KB 669
 Hambrook vs Stokes Brothers, (1925) 1 KB 141
 Bourhill vs Young (1943) AC 92 (HL)
 King vs Philips, (1953) 1 QB 429 (CA)
 McLoughlin vs O’Brian (1982) 2 All ER 298
 Alcock vs Chief Constable of Police (1991) 4 All ER 907
 White vs Chief Constable of South Yorkshire (1999) 1 All ER 1 (HL)
 Chadwick vs British Transport Commission, (1967) 1 WLR 912
 RATANLAL & DHIRAJLAL, THE LAW OF TORTS 231 (LexisNexis 2022).
 Lucknow Development Authority v M K Gupta, AIR 1994 SC 787