Court success: school caretaker’s occupational stress claim dismissed

  • A former school caretaker made an occupational stress claim against his ex-employer, alleging he was overworked, bullied and harassed
  • The caretaker also alleged the school’s decision to initiate disciplinary proceedings against him exacerbated his depression
  • The court dismissed the bullying and harassment claims, and said while the claimant’s depression was genuine, the school had not been aware of his illness and the disciplinary proceedings were justified

This case concerned a £100,000 claim for occupational stress brought by a former caretaker at a local authority school in the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. 

Background

The claimant initially alleged overwork, but also made various allegations of bullying and harassment by the head teacher and other members of staff; these included serious allegations about the motives of the school’s senior leadership team.

The claimant had one short period off work for stress in January 2014, and then went off again for stress in December 2014. He did not return to work. In January 2015, the school formally suspended the claimant and instigated disciplinary proceedings against him. This step was alleged to have exacerbated his psychiatric illness.

The law

A claim was brought for common law negligence against Kingston Council. The council accepted that there had been psychiatric injury at the time of the second absence, but said it was not foreseeable and so liability did not apply.

The defendant relied on the principles set out in Hatton v Sutherland (2002) and Barber v Somerset (2004). It also relied on a distinction between foreseeability of stress, and foreseeability of psychiatric injury – as set out in Zurich’s recent trial win in Piepenbrock v LSE (2018).

Legal arguments

During the trial, and after two days of cross-examination, the claimant abandoned a large number of the allegations that he had raised, including allegations of excess workload. The case essentially reduced to the following questions on liability:

  • Whether the claimant’s psychological injury in December 2014 was foreseeable
  • Whether the defendant was in breach of any common law duties owed to the claimant
  • Whether any breach of duty on the part of the defendant caused the claimant any injury, loss or damage

The claimant argued that his absence for stress in January 2014 amounted, on the medical evidence, to a psychiatric injury. The council was therefore on notice of special vulnerability such that it should have undertaken a stress risk assessment on his return to work.

Had the council done this, the claimant argued, it would have been aware that: his subsequent un-cooperative behaviour leading to December 2014 was indicative of an imminent psychiatric breakdown; that this would have triggered a duty to act; and that steps would have been taken to prevent the psychiatric illness in December 2014 developing. It was also argued that he should not have been suspended.

The council argued that the work absence in January 2014 was not, on the medical evidence, because of a genuine psychiatric illness, and that had further inquiries been undertaken at the time, they would not have warned the council that the claimant had special vulnerability. The council argued it was therefore entitled to assume that the claimant was able to withstand the ordinary pressures of his job, and that his behaviour in Autumn 2014 did not put it on notice that there was a foreseeable risk of imminent psychiatric illness.

Decision

Firstly, the court dismissed all allegations of bullying and harassment made against the senior leadership team. On the question of psychiatric illness in January 2014, the judge preferred the medical evidence of the defendant to that of the claimant.

The claimant was found to have had depression at the time of his suspension, that pre-dated the suspension, but the judge found that the defendant did not know this, and the depression was not foreseeable.

Even if the defendant had known of the depression at the time of the suspension, the suspension was a reasonable act on the facts. The claim was therefore dismissed.

Commentary

This case involved considerable reputational issues for the defendant’s witnesses and Zurich was therefore pleased that its support of the insured’s defence enabled those allegations to be publicly rebuffed. The judgment confirms the importance of foreseeability as a barrier to claimants’ success in stress claims.

Claimants must prove that the events gave rise to a foreseeable risk of injury of the kind that did in fact occur. Further, just because a certain step might aggravate a psychiatric condition (e.g. as here, a suspension), it does not therefore automatically follow that taking such a step is a breach of duty.

This case was handled by Jonathan Williams in our Specialist Claims Team. Andrew Sheppard of DAC Beachcroft represented us throughout the litigation.