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Why Corr v IBC Vehicles Ltd is important

In Corr v IBC Vehicles Ltd the House of Lords held that the harm was not too remote where a primary victim commits suicide as a result of a pyschiatric illness caused by the defendant’s negligent act. The House applied its previous reasoning, upholding that a defendant must take his victim as he finds them.

Facts

Mr Corr was employed by IBC Vehicles Ltd as a maintenance engineer. He was injured whilst repairing a faulty machine, as a result of which he lost most of his right ear. It was accepted that IBC Vehicles Ltd failed to take reasonable care to protect Mr Corr. He underwent surgery, but inter alia his face remained disfigured, he suffered from headaches and PTSD, and had trouble sleeping. He ended up drinking more alcohol than he had before.

Mr Corr was later diagnosed with depression. He was then admitted to hospital after taking an overdose of drugs, and was assessed as being a suicide risk. A few months later, and almost six years after the accident, Mr Corr committed suicide.

At the time of his death, it was accepted that Mr Corr had the capacity to make his own decisions, and appreciated the dangers and consequences of his actions. He was not insane, just suffering from depression and increasing feelings of hopelessness.

Claim

Mr Corr began proceedings against his employer before his death, claiming for physical and psychological harm in the tort of negligence. After his death, his widow continued these proceedings and claimed that the defendant was also responsible for Mr Corr’s suicide.

It was accepted that Mr Corr owed a duty to take reasonable care to protect him, and breached this duty. Furthermore, Mr Corr was entitled to losses for the physical and psychological harm caused up until his death. In the House of Lords, the defendant raised a number of reasons why they were nevertheless not responsible for Mr Corr’s suicide. These included:

  1. The harm was outside the scope of the duty owed by IBC Vehicles to their employees;
  2. Mr Corr’s suicide was not reasonably foreeseeable, so the damage was too remote;
  3. Mr Corr’s suicide broke the chain of causation between the defendant’s negligence and subsequent harm;
  4. The suicide was a voluntary act, meaning the claim was barred by the principle of ‘volenti non fit injuria’;
  5. Mr Corr’s contributory negligence reduced the recoverable losses (although this point was not fully argued before the House).

Held

The House of Lords rejected the defendant’s arguments, and held IBC Vehicles Ltd liable for Mr Corr’s suicide. On the issue of remoteness, they held that the damage was not too remote. A summary of the Court’s reasoning with regards to causation can be found here.

Reasoning

The House of Lords recited that a claimant must show that the damage was reasonably foreseeable, and also the principle that a defendant takes his victim as he finds them. They also noted its earlier decision in Page v Smith, which removed any distinction between physical and psychiatric injury.

IBC Vehicles accepted that psychological trauma and depression were a foreseeable result of the incident. However, they argued it was not reasonably foreseeable this would result in the victim’s suicide. Rejecting this submission, the House of Lords held the damage was not too remote.

The House held the claimant did not need to show that their suicide was itself a foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s act. Instead, it is sufficient that the cause of Mr Corr’s suicide, his depression, was reasonably foreseeable, which had been accepted by the defendants. This conclusion, the House held, was consistent with the principle that a defendant takes his victim as he finds them.

In doing so, Lord Bingham referred to Lord Pearce’s dicta in Hughes v Lord Advocate that, “to demand too great precision in the test of foreseeability would be unfair to the pursuer since the facets of misadventure are innumerable”.

Lord Bingham did qualify this conclusion slightly. He said it must nevertheless be shown that the consequences of their illness were not “so unusual and unpredictable to be outside the bounds of what is reasonably foreseeable”. However, he held this was not the case with suicide, which he explained as being a ‘not uncommon’ consequence of severe depression.

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