In this article...

In the recent unreported, but widely covered in the press, case of Connor v Surrey County Council the High Court provided a timely reminder that in addition to statutory duties under health and safety legislation, employers are under a common law duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of employees in the workplace. If they fail to do this the consequences can be far reaching and expensive. Chloe Edwards take a closer look at this case and its implications for employers.

Stress and negligence claims

In order to bring a successful negligence claim an employee has to show that:

  • His / her employer breached the common law duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of employees in the workplace;
  • It was reasonably foreseeable that an injury would result from that breach;
  • A loss, in the form of personal injury, has actually occurred.

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The Facts

In this case, Mrs Connor (‘C’) joined New Monument Primary School in Surrey as a deputy head teacher in 1994. The school was multi cultural, but most of the pupils were Muslim. C was promoted to head teacher in 1998 and continued in this role until she stopped work due to ill health in September 2005.

In 2003 a number of new members joined the schools governing body and the behaviour and actions of two – Mr Martin  (‘M’) and Mr Saleem (‘S’) caused considerable problems for C, in particular:-

  • They sought to monopolise meetings with a view to imposing their agenda to increase the role of the Muslim religion at the School;
  • S made offensive verbal attacks at meetings;
  • M made numerous informal and formal complaints of racism and ‘Islamophobia’;
  • M also circulated a petition amongst the local community against C which was later described during the hearing as a ‘highly offensive document, itself racist.’

As a result of this conduct C left work due to ill health and bought a number of claims against Surrey County Council including a claim for psychiatric injury resulting from negligence.

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The High Court

After a detailed review of the events of what was described as ‘two years of anxiety and low morale for the school’ the High Court found in C’s favour in relation to her claim for negligence and awarded her £387,778 (not including interest and past loss).

In reaching their decision the High Court held that the Council ought to have considered that C was at risk of psychiatric injury from stress and that it was then their duty to put a stop to this ‘so far as was within their power.’

The Council’s power in this case was contained in sections 14-19 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which provide that a Council has a power, where there is a serious breakdown in the way a School is governed and following the issue of a warning notice, to appoint additional governors and to replace the existing governing body with an interim executive board.

The High Court found that because of a number of delays, an apparent misunderstanding of the correct procedure to follow and the decision to set up mediation and hold a further independent inquiry before intervening the Council negligently ignored the health and welfare of C.

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Employment Implications

In this difficult financial climate there is likely to be an escalation in the number of incidents of work-related stress. In order to prevent hefty awards being made against them at a later date employers will need to respond fully and quickly to complaints of stress or any changes in an employee’s behaviour.

In reaching its decision in the current case the High Court made a number of helpful comments which should be borne in mind by employers dealing with stressed employees, these were:-

  • If the employer has specialist support services available for employees it must actively consider how to deploy them.
  • If a stress or harassment claim comes about because of a disagreement between different parties an employer should take care to ensure each side’s concerns are investigated.
  • In this case the Council appeared to be most concerned with M’s complaints – despite the fact he refused to participate in complaints processes or accept the findings of various reports and inquiries - because they feared these may lead to a referral to the CRE and in contrast failed to intervene in the affairs of the governing body. It is surprising in some ways that this form of ‘positive discrimination’ was not raised as a race discrimination claim by C.
  • Employers should always take care to comply with the principles of natural justice when carrying out any report or complaints procedure related to employees rights. The High Court did not believe the final inquiry carried out by the Council was handled well as it:

a) was not disclosed to staff

b) the scope of the inquiry was extended without telling the witnesses; and

c) the inquiry report did not list the witnesses questioned or identify what documentation had been examined.

  • The final guidance the High Court gave related to the correspondence that the Council had issued during the process which they stated should be consistent with any actions it takes and be appropriate to the situation. They made this comment in particular reference to a letter the Council's Director of Schools wrote to parents after the petition about C had been circulated and which the High Court agreed was a somewhat anodyne response. It was not a letter which was ‘clearly and unequivocally supportive of the staff and the Claimant.' This discrepancy undermined the Council's case that it had been trying to support C.   

If you have any questions regarding personal injury claims at any time, please do not hesitate to contact Paul Taverner, Partner and head of our experienced personal injury team who will be happy to help.

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