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Employers' liability for psychiatric illness caused by work

28th April 2015

The recent case of Easton v B&Q Plc reiterates that proving that an injury is ‘reasonably foreseeable’ is a difficult task for employees. In this case, it was found B&Q Plc was not liable for Mr Easton’s psychiatric illness which had been caused by work-related stress.

Mr Easton had been a successful store manager for 10 years. In May 2010 he was diagnosed as suffering from depression which he alleged was due to the negligence and/or breach of statutory duty by B&Q. There were 2 attempts to initiate a phased return to work at a store nearer his home, however both were unsuccessful. The phased return to work arrangements were set up as Mr Easton has said that he felt ready to return to work.

The Judge explained that an employer has no general obligation to make searching or intrusive enquiries and the employer is usually entitled to take at face value what an employee tells him. Therefore B&Q were entitled to act on the basis that Mr Easton had decided himself he was ready to return to work. Additionally in relation to Mr Easton’s relapse, the High Court held that the injury was not foreseeable. Although B&Q now knew he had suffered a psychiatric illness, this was not enough for B&Q to inevitably be liable for any subsequent injury as the reasonably foreseeable test still applies. Additionally, the fact he was still taking medication was not determinative as to how his employment should have been handled. There are many people holding down demanding jobs who still require medication. This illustrates that the foreseeability threshold in stress claims is high.

A significant part of Mr Easton's case was the lack of risk assessment by the employer in relation to stress. It was found that Mr Easton had no history of psychiatric injury and had not raised any concerns as to work-related stress with B&Q, beyond what was described as a ‘passing grumble.’ Additionally, B&Q had provided Mr Easton with a document relating to managing stress which invited individuals to approach their employer with any concerns about stress. Mr Easton was not experiencing the signs set out in the booklet until the point at which he was suffering from a psychiatric illness and he had not approached B&Q to raise any issues. The trial Judge was of the opinion that Mr Easton had made insufficient efforts to do this and therefore concluded that, on the facts of the particular case, a wider risk assessment would have had no effect on the outcome.

In conclusion, Mr Easton failed to establish that his psychiatric illness was foreseeable or that there was any breach of duty on the part of B&Q and therefore his claim for damages failed.

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