The personal injury team at Penningtons Manches recently received an enquiry from a potential client who was unfortunate enough to come upon the aftermath of his colleague burning to death in an oven at a kayak manufacturing plant. He immediately started exhibiting avoidance behaviour, nightmares and flashbacks. He also began to develop alopecia and became depressed and unable to work. It was clear from his debilitating symptoms that he was suffering from PTSD, an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. What he experienced at work through no fault of his own was preventing him from working and was having a devastating effect on his life.

However, following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in the case of Alcock v The Chief Constable Of South Yorkshire Police ([1991] 4 All E R.907, the courts have sought to limit the class of claimant that can successfully claim for PTSD.

There were a number of different types of victims of PTSD in the Hillsborough disaster case. For example, there were those who were present at the football match and saw their friends or fellow supporters die and were in fear of dying themselves; those who did not fear for their lives or have a close relationship with those who died but who helped out to the extent that they were described by the courts as ‘rescuers’; and those who witnessed the death or came upon the immediate aftermath of their loved ones or those with whom they had a close tie of love and affection. Other PTSD sufferers included people who were there but did not fulfil any of the criteria above or who heard about it from others or on the radio or watched it on TV. In the Hillsborough disaster, the court decided that all of the criteria, except for the last one, were entitled to claim thus strictly limiting who can claim for PTSD even if they are genuinely suffering from PTSD.

Even though our potential client had genuine symptoms of PTSD that were caused by coming upon the aftermath of his colleague dying in disturbing circumstances, he fell into the last category and his claim would not have succeeded. The law relating to PTSD is limited for public policy reasons as the courts did not want everyone who attended the football match at Hillsborough or saw it on TV to make a claim. But it does seem unfair when the usual rules of negligence such as duty, breach, causation and damage are fulfilled but the courts have stepped in to deny it in special circumstances.