Clyde & Co recently secured a successful discontinuance of a complex stress at work claim with a total value in excess of £325,000.

Expert evidence had indicated that the Claimant suffered longstanding behavioural issues stemming from young adulthood and would have suffered psychiatric illness irrespective of her employment with our client.

This success is particularly relevant given that workplace stress and harassment claims are on the rise and illustrates the merits of resisting the temptation to make an offer whilst thorough investigations are undertaken. The result is indicative of how claimant representatives can be deterred from running insubstantial claims to Trial and incurring large sums of unrecoverable costs in the future.

Background

The Claimant was employed as a support worker at the Defendant charity. The Claimant allegedly developed a panic and generalised anxiety disorder whilst employed by the Defendant between mid-2015 to early 2016. The disorders were allegedly caused by her experiences in the workplace.

The Claimant submitted a claim arguing a breach of duty/negligence and foreseeability against the Defendant. She had been suspended from work in April 2016 and only identified her ill health issues in late May 2016. Prior to her employment commencing in a health questionnaire, the Claimant had disclosed that she had previously been diagnosed with an emotionally unstable personality disorder. The Defendant carried out a risk assessment and agreed control measures with the Claimant, who worked without complaint until she was suspended.

Liability was denied as there was clear evidence that the Claimant had been supported throughout her employment. Foreseeability was also in contention as there was no indication that the Claimant was at risk of a reasonably foreseeable injury as a result of workplace stress.

Causation

The Claimant’s expert tried to downplay the Claimant’s chronic, pre-existing psychiatric problems despite her medical records showing a longstanding history of behavioural problems including angry outbursts, periodic periods of stress, paranoid traits and suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

Our own expert evidence was crucial in undermining causation and supported a robust defence. Our expert submitted that due to the Claimant’s longstanding behavioural problems stemming from her teenage years, she was likely to have suffered psychiatric illness irrespective of her employment with the Defendant. The events complained of would not have altered the trajectory of the Claimant’s deep-rooted chronic personality disorder, with mood fluctuations of varied severity existing over an extended period.

Discontinuance

We continued to maintain a firm position, highlighting the weaknesses in the Claimant’s case. We made it clear that if a Notice of Discontinuance should be received after we had incurred costs relating to Trial, we were instructed to make an application to set aside the discontinuance and to seek our wasted costs. The Claimant made a Part 36 offer late in the day and when swiftly rejected, the Claimant made a Calderbank combined offer for damages and costs. It was clear that in the run up to Trial the Claimant was holding out in the hope that an offer would be forthcoming to secure some level of damages and a reasonable contribution towards her costs.

Nonetheless, we maintained our position, and the Claimant finally submitted a Notice of Discontinuance shortly before Trial, although before Trial costs were incurred.

Based on evidence provided by the Claimant’s expert, the total value of the claim was quite significant and a total potential saving of approximately £325,000.00 was attained.

What can we learn?

  • Stress at work and bullying/harassment claims are on the rise. They vary in value although almost always are complex and fact specific. Fully investigating such claims and investing in expert evidence, whilst costly, is imperative to provide the necessary ammunition to maintain a robust defence.
  • Whilst economics should always be considered, the merits (and value) of every case should also be weighed before taking a decision on whether the case should be fully defended to Trial, if necessary. It is also important to consider possible unintended consequences of taking an economic view and the risk that this could encourage further claims being brought in the first instance and the inevitable cost implications for insurers. In this case the Claimant’s solicitors incurred significant unrecoverable costs in dealing with this case and running the matter almost to Trial.
  • The value of the Claimant’s damages was quite modest in this instance but when factoring in a significant CRU liability and the Claimant’s high costs budget, the overall cost of settling the claim would have been substantial, particularly if settled on a conventional Part 36 basis.
  • Whilst there may be a temptation to settle modestly valued claims the combined overall spend should be considered not to mention the hidden costs of potentially encouraging claimant solicitors to bring weak claims in the first instance or persevere with cases in the expectation that they will secure an offer prior to Trial.