Commentary - Judges find Hatton hard to apply

The Court of Appeal gave its judgement on 19 January 2005 on six appeals, Hartman v South Essex Ment...

The Court of Appeal gave its judgement on 19 January 2005 on six appeals, Hartman v South Essex Mental Health and Community Care NHS Trust, involving claims for damages for psychiatric injury arising out of stress at work. There are other cases in the pipeline.

Lord Justice Scott Baker confirmed what practitioners have known for some time that some judges are finding it difficult to apply the principles laid down in Hatton v Sutherland (2002). The six appeals illustrate the range of issues coming before the courts: overwork, specific incidents, bullying, and apportionment of damages.

In Hartman, the Court of Appeal reiterated the general principle that stress at work claims are no different to other claims for injury at work.

It is a foreseeable injury flowing from the employers' breach of duty that gives rise to liability. The fact that an employee is stressed at work and the employer is in breach of duty in some respect does not necessarily mean that a case is established in negligence.

The court did not see any inconsistency of approach between the principles laid down by Lord Justice Hale in Hatton and the judgement of Justice Stanwick in Stokes v Guest, Keen and Nettlefold (Bolts and Nuts) (1968), which had been endorsed by the House of Lords in Barber v Somerset County Council (2004).

In their view, Lord Justice Hale was applying established principles to a new problem and was not creating new principles, although they did accept the need to take care in applying Hatton to varied factual circumstances that may occur.

The judgement expresses concern over the disproportionate costs being incurred on these cases and encourages parties to identify the real issues and ensure that expenditure on costs is truly proportionate to what is at stake.

Many practitioners and their clients will readily identify with that.

Parties can become bogged down in minutiae and sidetracked by what ultimately prove to be irrelevant details or disputes over minor matters.

Given the difficulties to date over this type of claim, it is likely to be some time before the confidence exists to abandon lines of enquiry or assume some facts to be trivial or irrelevant. Vivienne Williams, BLM Manchester

- These law reports are contributed by insurance law firm Berrymans Lace Mawer (http://www.blm-law.com).

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