Page v Smith (1996): Foreseeability and psychiatric harm.

Page v Smith is a leading and authoritative case in tort law where negligence is involved resulting in psychiatric harm to the victim.

Areas of applicable law: Tort law – Negligence liability in psychiatric harm.

Main arguments in this case: Who is a primary victim and who is a secondary victim in a case of negligence? Foreseeability in psychiatric harm.

The fact of the case: The plaintiff, Mr Page, was involved in a moderate car accident but he was physically unhurt in the collision. However the crash did result in a recurrence of myalgic encephalomyelitis (Chronic fatigue syndrome) from which he had been suffering for 20 years prior to the accident but the condition itself was in remission. Mr Page brought a claim against the defendant for psychiatric harm claiming that though he had been suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, its occurrence was  irregular and since the accident the symptoms became more permanent and as a result, he was not able to work.

The defendant admitted that he had been negligent, but said he was not liable for the psychiatric harm as it was unforeseeable and therefore not recoverable as a primary cause of harm.

In its decision the House of Lords held where it was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant’s actions would cause physical harm to the victim then a duty of care arose and it did not matter what sort of injury the victim received including any psychiatric harm; moreover, when the issue of psychiatric harm is concerned, foreseeability was not necessary.

The court also distinguished between a primary and a secondary victim. As per its ruling the court stated that a primary victim was someone who was involved in an accident and consequently suffered physical or mental harm – or believed that he was in real danger of getting hurt. A secondary victim was someone who witnessed such injury being inflicted on a primary victim or feared that the victim (primary) would suffer such injury.

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