19.3.09

Head teacher succeeds in stress claim against local education authority; Defendant breached its duty of care and psychiatric injury was foreseeable.

Mrs Connor joined the New Monument Primary School in Surrey as deputy head in 1994, was promoted to head in 1998 and continued as head until September 2005 when she ceased work due to ill health. The school was multicultural but most of the pupils were Muslim. Under Mrs Connor’s leadership between 1998 and 2002 the SATS results improved considerably and there were no real problems until 2003 when new members joined the school’s governing body. The conduct of two of these, Mr Martin and Mr Saleem caused Mrs Connor considerable problems. Between them they sought to monopolise the meetings with a view to imposing their own agenda to introduce an increasing role for the Muslim religion in the school. Mr Saleem made offensive verbal attacks at meetings, followed by requests for information. In addition, Mr Martin sought to stir up disaffection in the local community.

Held  

Although allegations were put forward of a breach of a duty of trust and confidence and breaches of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the Judge considered that these added nothing to the allegation of negligence. In addition, a case of harassment, as opposed to offensive and upsetting behaviour, had not been made out and vicarious liability had not been established on the evidence.

To establish negligence Mrs Connor had to prove that her psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable, that the Council (as local education authority) was in breach of its duty of care to her and that the breach caused her injury. On the evidence, from June 2004 the Council ought to have considered that Mrs Connor was at risk of psychiatric injury from stress. The delay in setting up an interim executive board to replace the governing body and the decision to set up an independent inquiry were negligent because they disregarded the health and welfare of Mrs Connor and her staff. Causation was established. Accordingly the Judge found in favour of Mrs Connor and made an award of over £400,000 in her favour.

Comment  

This case is the latest in a line of decisions applying the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Hatton v Sutherland [2002] in relation to claims for stress at work.

In the November 2008 edition of Liability Brief we reported on Paterson v Surrey Police Authority [2008], where the Claimant failed on the basis that it was not reasonably foreseeable that he would suffer injury to his health. However, each case will be considered on its own merits. In Connor a detailed analysis of the evidence was carried out in a lengthy judgment and the judge held there was sufficient evidence to show that there had been a breach of duty and it was reasonably foreseeable that Mrs Connor would suffer a psychiatric injury.

Defendants and their insurers will want to consider claims for stress at work carefully, in particular given the substantial costs that can be involved in their defence. Paterson illustrated that stress claims can be successfully defended, but Connor serves as a reminder that, provided that the tests set out in Hatton are satisfied, claimants can still succeed.