Court of Appeal overturns stress at work award for diplomat
Yapp v Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Court of Appeal
Andrew Cousins reviews the latest in a recent line of decisions on stress at work. The Court of Appeal overturned an award made at first instance to the High Commissioner of Belize for psychiatric injury and in doing so helpfully set out the caselaw governing remoteness of damage in contract and tort.
The case concerned a claim brought by a former High Commissioner in Belize against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (“FCO”). The claimant was withdrawn from his post by the defendant and suspended on “operational grounds”. The FCO commenced disciplinary proceedings against the claimant following complaints of inappropriate behaviour and bullying and the claimant received a final written warning. The suspension was lifted but the claimant had developed a depressive illness.
The claimant commenced proceedings against the FCO and claimed that the disciplinary proceedings had not been handled correctly, that the resulting stress had caused the depressive illness which constituted damage and led to an inability to work. As such the claimant brought a claim for damages for his losses.
Liability was tried before Cranston J who found that the withdrawal of the claimant from his post was a breach of contract and a breach of duty owed by the FCO at common law and that these breaches had caused the claimant’s depressive illness. The judge dismissed the claim in respect of the disciplinary proceedings.
The defendant appealed the findings and argued that the judge had applied the wrong test to the question of whether the claimant’s withdrawal was fair, and even if the illness was caused by the breach then it was too remote to attract an award of damages.
Patten LJ, Davis LJ and Underhill LJ allowing the FCO’s appeal in part, held:
Whilst the FCO’s actions had been unfair to an extent and that there had been a breach of contract, the FCO was attempting to follow due process.
It was not reasonably foreseeable that the FCO’s conduct in withdrawing the claimant from his post might lead to a psychiatric condition and the claimant could not therefore recover losses for breach of the common law duty of care.
- In respect of the claim in contract, the losses claimed in this regard were too remote as well.
In making its findings the court considered that:
- It should be exceptional that an apparently robust employee with no history of mental ill health would develop a psychiatric condition as a result of a setback at work;
There was nothing in the circumstances of the present case that was sufficiently egregious as to render it foreseeable that the withdrawal from his post would have caused the claimant psychiatric harm.
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