Easton v B&Q Plc [2015] EWHC 880 (QB)

Why care?

Whether or not an employee's damages claim for psychiatric illness and consequential loss caused by work-related stress is successful depends on whether the kind of harm suffered is reasonably foreseeable. Also key is what the employer knew or ought reasonably to have known about the employee.

The case

Mr Easton's abilities as the manager of a large retail outlet were identified by B&Q which recruited him in 2004 to manage a B&Q store including managing the refurbishment of a store. He was very successful. However in May 2010 he was diagnosed as suffering from depression, was away from work with depression for about five months and received medication and therapy. When he returned it was on a phased basis managing a less busy store nearer his home. However, a few days into the return, he was re-certified as unfit for work due to depression after he felt he came under pressure to accept the regional manager's offer of a temporary post at another branch.

He maintained his depression was caused by occupational stress due to his employer's negligence or breach of statutory duty. His claims were based on workplaces changes (the removal of night staff and the construction of an exclusive area for tradesmen) which had placed him under excessive stress. He argued that he had raised this with his managers. He also claimed that B&Q was in breach of duty in its management of his return to work, including lack of risk assessment in relation to stress. He sought damages for psychiatric illness and consequential loss caused by work-related stress.

In the High Court his employer accepted that Mr Easton had suffered a psychiatric illness and that the illness, at least substantially, was caused by occupational stress. However, it argued that the illness had not been foreseeable at any stage and that it did not breach any duty.

On the facts of the case the court held that Mr Easton's claim failed at the first hurdle 'foreseeability' in respect of his first breakdown. This was because of his long managerial career in charge of large retail outlets with no psychiatric history. The court also found that Mr Easton's concerns had not been expressed in such terms that they should have put B&Q on notice of a significant risk of him suffering from excessive stress. While B&Q did not follow recommendations made in a return-to-work plan, its approach in relation to Mr Easton's return to work, when it was on notice as to his vulnerability, was reasonable.

Neither was B&Q in breach of its duty to Mr Easton when he suffered a relapse. Although B&Q clearly now knew he had suffered a psychiatric illness, the fact he was still taking medication was not determinative as to how his employment should have been handled as there are many people holding down demanding jobs who still require medication. The court also considered B&Q's failure to have undertaken a risk assessment and concluded that a risk assessment would not have revealed a general risk of psychiatric injury.

The High Court relied on the leading authority of Hatton v Sutherland [2002] ICR 613 on claims by employees for damages in respect of psychiatric injury caused by stress in the workplace. It held that an employer has no general obligation to make searching or intrusive enquiries and may take at face value what an employee tells him. In particular, an employee who returns to work after a period of sickness is usually implying that he believes himself to be fit to return to the work he was doing before. Therefore the test of whether it is reasonably foreseeable for an employer that the employee would suffer harm is high.

What to take away?

This decision is of some comfort to employers as there was nothing about the employee which put his employer on notice that he might suffer psychiatric illness, so this was not "foreseeable", and there was also nothing about store managers in general giving rise to foresight of such a risk.  Following the psychiatric illness his employer was on notice that he was vulnerable but Mr Easton, was by his own account, ready and keen to return to work so his return to work did not amount to a breach of duty.