What is sudden shock in secondary victim cases? Charles Cory-Wright QC

What is sudden shock in secondary victim cases? Charles Cory-Wright QC

CategoryNews Author Charlie Cory-Wright KC Date


This was a secondary victim claim arising out of admitted negligence in surgery in a hospital setting.  The claimant sued in respect of psychiatric damage after seeing the condition of his wife after negligently performed surgery. At first instance he was successful. The Trust successfully appealed.

The Court of Appeal’s ruling was to the following effect.

(1) A secondary victim Claimant must (as well as proving psychiatric injury, and satisfying all the other control mechanisms) show that the psychiatric injury was caused by a shocking event that was (a) exceptional, (b) sudden and (c) horrifying.

(2) Whether an event was sufficiently horrifying must be judged by objective standards and by reference to persons of ordinary susceptibility, not by examining the Claimant’s own knowledge and its effect upon him or her in the light of that.

(3) When visiting a hospital one must expect to see things that one may not like to see, such as patients connected to machines and drips, or in a bad physical state. A visitor is to a degree conditioned as to what to expect and it is likely that due warning will be given by medical staff of an impending encounter likely to prove more than ordinarily distressing.

(4) It was in the circumstances unsurprising that there was only one previous reported case in which a secondary victim claimant had succeeded in consequence of observing in a hospital setting the consequences of clinical negligence.  That case was highly exceptional in nature, given the circumstances,

(5)  There was here no sudden appreciation of an event because there was a series of events giving rise to an accumulation of gradual assaults on the Claimant’s mind. At each stage, the Claimant was conditioned for what he was about to perceive and that his wife’s life was in danger.  There was nothing sudden or unexpected about being ushered in to see his wife and finding her connected to medical equipment.

This appeal was of real significance to Hospital Trusts, since the ramifications of the first instance judgment were that any clinical negligence claim might engender secondary victim liability if visiting family members could prove psychiatric damage as a result.

Charlie Cory-Wright QC appeared for the successful appellant NHS Trust on this appeal.

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