• In the case of White v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire [1999] 2 A.C. 455, it was held that an employer’s duty of care towards their employees did not include a duty to prevent the employee from being a secondary victim of psychiatric injury.

Facts of the Case

  • During the Hillsborough disaster, 96 spectators died and many more were injured by crushing in two spectator pens.
  • This was caused by a senior police officer’s decision to open an outer gate without cutting off access to the pens. One of the officers who admitted to liability for this is D, the chief constable of C.
  • C, consisting of 4 police officers, were on duty in the aftermath of the disaster. All of them suffered PTSD resulting from the experience.
  • C argued that their status as rescuers during the disaster meant that the limitations to psychiatric injury established in Alcock did not apply.
  • C argued that the risk of them suffering psychiatric injury was reasonably foreseeable, even though they were never exposed to physical danger.


  • What duty did D have towards officers under him, and did this involve a duty to protect C from psychiatric harm?
  • Could D claim as a primary victim of psychiatric harm if the injuries were sustained in the course of discharging their duties as police officers?

Held by the House of Lords

  • Finding for D, that a chief constable owed their officers duties akin to an employer. This did not include protecting them from psychiatric injury where there was no breach of the duty to protect from physical injury.
  • C could not claim as rescuers, meaning they were not primary victims in this case. As such, they were subject to the limitations imposed in Alcock.
  • The fact that P’s injuries were sustained in the course of discharging their duties as police officers did not of itself justify extending the law so as to allow their claims.

Lord Steyn

  • In an ideal world all those who suffer as a result of negligence ought to be compensated. However, we live in a practical world where tort imposes limits to the classes of claims and the heads of recoverable damages. Common law regards reasonable foreseeability as inadequate for the disposal of emotional injury claims.
  • C has argued that there is no justification for regarding physical and psychiatric injury as different kinds of damage. Nowadays courts accept that there is no rigid distinction between body and mind. However, it is altogether different to argue that the principles of recovering damages should reflect this.
  • There are distinctive features of psychiatric harm which in combination may account for the differential treatment, such as greater diagnostic difficulty, a potential disincentive to engage in rehabilitation and a disproportionate burden of liability on defendants in conduct involving momentary lapses in concentration.
  • There is no contract between police officers and their chief constable, but the relationship between them is closely analogous to a contract of employment.
  • It has been argued that an employer has a duty to take reasonable steps to safeguard employees from harm. But it is wrong to say that because he must protect from physical damage, he also must protect from pure psychiatric damage.
  • The current pragmatic rules governing damages do not currently include officers who suffer psychiatric injuries on duty. Introducing this now would include many others, including doctors.
  • Officers traumatised at work have the benefit of statutory schemes which permit them to retire on pension. In this sense, they are already better off than bereaved relatives who were not allowed to recover in Alcock.
  • “The law has long recognized the moral imperative of encouraging citizens to rescue persons in peril. Those who altruistically expose themselves to danger in an emergency to save others are favoured by the law. A rescue attempt to save someone from danger will be regarded as foreseeable. A duty of care to a rescuer may arise even if the defendant owed no duty to the primary victim, for example, because the latter was a trespasser. If a rescuer is injured in a rescue attempt, a plea of volenti non fit injuria will not avail a wrongdoer. A plea of contributory negligence will usually receive short shrift. A rescuer’s act in endangering himself will not be treated as a novus actus interveniens” [498F].
  • In order to recover as a rescuer, C must at least satisfy the threshold that he objectively exposed himself to danger or reasonably believed that he was doing so.
  • Without such limitation, we would be left in the nonsensical position that, while Alcock prevents bereaved relatives from recovering, ghoulishly curious spectators who assist in some peripheral way can.