Roger Pearson looks at the rights of those working for the emergency services to sue their employers over work-related trauma
An Appeal Court ruling has reinforced the rights of police and members of other emergency services to seek damages after witnessing traumatic incidents while at work.
The case reinforces the principles established by cases such as those of police present during the horrors of the Hillsborough stadium disaster.
In Schofield v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, WPC Lynne Schofield sued the police as a result of post-traumatic shock suffered after a police colleague fired a pistol without warning. The colleague's action was later the subject of internal disciplinary proceedings.
Schofield and an acting sergeant went to a house where guns had been found. As the guns were handed over, the sergeant pointed one of the weapons, a 1914 service revolver, at some bedding, and pulled the trigger six times.
Schofield had to leave the force on medical grounds and was awarded £151,000 by Deputy Judge Sir William MacPherson in the High Court in February 1997. The award was upheld in the Court of Appeal by Lords Justices Hirst, Hutchison and Thorpe, and an appeal by West Yorkshire's Chief Constable was dismissed.
Schofield told the High Court that while she had not felt any fear or danger at the time, her ears rang and she had felt numb and shocked by what she considered to be "unbelievable and unprofessional" behaviour. She claimed she had not reacted at the time because her concern had been for the safety of the two elderly women in the room.
On appeal, the police argued that Schofield had not suffered psychiatric injury attributable to them which could be legally compensated for.
In claims rejected by the Appeal Court judges, they argued that the High Court's finding that she had suffered shock-induced post-traumatic stress disorder was against the evidence in the case, and that it had been wrong to characterise Schofield as a "primary victim" or to find that there had been a foreseeable risk of injury. They also claimed the judge failed to consider whether she was a person of "ordinary fortitude".
But the Appeal Court judges upheld the decision. They said the issue was whether Schofield was a participant in the incident which, on the basis of the Hillsborough decisions, she was.
The relationship between her and the sergeant as employees jointly engaged in carrying out a task for their employer had been sufficiently close. They took the view the sergeant had acted in a way which he should have realised would expose Schofield to the risk of injury.
Schofield was represented by Melanie Farran, managing partner at the Leeds office of Russell Jones & Walker. Farran says that the decision is important as it backs up existing law laid down in the Hillsborough cases and Page v Smith. But she admits it did not, as hoped, go towards expanding the scope for such claims.
She stresses that it is vital in such cases to get the most detailed statement possible from the client from the outset and then to get experts who can back the allegations relating to the effects of the incident.
Farran says that at face value the damages appear to be high, but she says this is because most of them relate to financial loss stemming from having to take early retirement.
The award included general damages of £15,000, special damages of £79,250 (including losses to the date of the hearing and medical expenses), £42,250 for future loss and pension loss, and £14,500 interest.