When establishing that an employer has been negligent, employees have to show that the injury was reasonably foreseeable. In Easton v B&Q plc, the High Court ruled that an employee’s depression caused mainly by occupational stress was not reasonably foreseeable as he had no history of psychiatric or psychological problems.
Mr Easton, a senior store manager for B&Q, was seconded to the company’s head office in 2007 to lead a team implementing a structural change in its range of products. In July 2008 he was appointed as the manager of the Romford store to oversee a substantial refurbishment. Both projects were completed successfully and by early 2010 Mr Easton was earning in the region of £105,000. However, he was also working long hours - by February 2010 he estimated that he was working up to 14 hours a day.
After being passed over for promotion for a second time, Mr Easton went off sick in May 2010 and was subsequently diagnosed with depression. He returned to work in September 2010 on a phased basis but on 7 October (after only four days in the role) he was offered a vacancy for a temporary manager in another store. He went to his GP on the following day complaining of feeling pressured to take up the temporary post and was signed off sick again by his GP. Apart from another unsuccessful attempt to return to work in January 2012, Mr Easton did not work for B&Q again.
Mr Easton claimed that his illness was caused by occupational stress resulting from the negligence of B&Q and/or a failure to carry out a risk assessment. He also claimed that the company’s failure to manage his return to work in September 2010 caused him to relapse.
B&Q accepted that he was suffering from a psychiatric illness caused mainly by occupational stress but that it was not foreseeable at any stage.
High Court decision
Relying on the case of Hatton v Sutherland, the High Court judge held that Mr Easton’s first breakdown was not foreseeable as he had no history of psychiatric or psychological problems. Not only was there nothing about Mr Easton to suggest to the company that he might suffer psychiatric illness, there was nothing about store managers in general which might give rise to foresight of such a risk.
The company also acted reasonably after his first breakdown by offering him a phased return to work in a less busy store nearer to his home. It was also entitled to assume that Mr Easton, who had said he felt ready to return, was able to assess whether he wanted to take up the offer or not. Likewise, it was not a breach of the company’s duty to Mr Easton when it made him the offer of the post of temporary manager on 7 October. Just because B&Q knew he was vulnerable did not mean they were automatically liable for any psychiatric illness that he might subsequently suffer. The company’s approach did not therefore give rise to a risk of psychiatric injury “of which it knew or ought to have known”.
Even if B&Q had carried out a risk assessment, it would not have made any difference. Although the working environment in the company was pressured, it was no more so than many other similar organisations. There was no history in B&Q of store managers suffering from psychiatric illness and until early 2010 Mr Easton himself would have denied that he was under stress. In any event, the staff handbook made clear that staff must talk to their manager about feeling stressed, which he did not do. Nor did he manifest any of the signs of stress set out in another company document until he was actually suffering from a psychiatric illness. By that stage, it was too late for his employers to take action to remedy the situation. A proper risk assessment would have therefore had no effect on the outcome.
As Mr Easton failed to establish that his psychiatric illness was foreseeable and that there was any breach of duty on the part of B & Q, his claim for damages could not succeed.