Corr (administratix of the estate of Thomas Corr deceased) v IBC Vehicles Ltd

In negligence cases, claimants have to show (among other things) that the harm they suffered was reasonably foreseeable, and part of a “chain” that can be traced back to the accident. In Corr (administratix of the estate of Thomas Corr deceased) v IBC Vehicles Ltd, the House of Lords said that suicide was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of an employer’s breach of duty.

Basic facts

After a serious accident at work in 1996 causing severe head injuries due to a machine that malfunctioned, Mr Corr suffered from depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Six years later, at the age of 37, he committed suicide by jumping from the top of a multi-story car park.

After his death, his widow brought a claim for damages under section 1 of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (FAA), arguing that her husband’s physical and psychiatric injuries (including his suicide) were reasonably foreseeable consequences of the accident.

IBC Vehicles admitted that it had breached the duty of care it owed Mr Corr and that the breach caused the accident in 1996, but denied liability for his suicide.

High Court and Court of Appeal decisions

The High Court dismissed Mrs Corr’s claim. It held that although her husband’s depression had been a foreseeable outcome of the accident, his suicide had not. The question of reasonable foreseeability has to be judged at the time of the original accident, not with the benefit of hindsight. As Mr Corr had not had mental health problems before the accident, the company could not have foreseen that he would subsequently commit suicide.

The Court of Appeal, however, said that the question was not whether his suicide had been foreseeable but whether the kind of harm for which Mrs Corr was claiming damages (her husband’s depression) was foreseeable. As the evidence clearly showed that the accident caused the PTSD which led to his depression and ultimately his suicide, there was no break in the “chain of causation” and Mrs Corr’s claim could therefore succeed.

House of Lords decision

And the House of Lords agreed. It said that personal injury included psychological injury and that Mr Corr’s depression had been caused by his accident.

As a result of the accident (for which IBC was liable), “he acted in a way which he would not have done but for the injury.” His suicide was therefore a foreseeable outcome of his injuries and the damages claimed fell within the scope of the duty that IBC owed Mr Corr.

Their Lordships accepted that although “some manifestations of severe depression could properly be held to be so unusual and unpredictable as to be outside the bounds of what is reasonably foreseeable”, suicide was not one of them.

As for the argument that his suicide had broken the “chain of causation”, their Lordships said that “Mr Corr’s suicide was not a voluntary, informed decision taken by him as an adult of sound mind making and giving effect to a personal decision about his future. It was the response of a man suffering from a severely depressive illness which impaired his capacity to make reasoned and informed judgments about his future ... It is in no way unfair to hold the employer responsible for this dire consequence of its breach of duty.”

Nor was it necessary to make a finding of insanity before allowing a damages claim in such cases because suicide was no longer unlawful. Their Lordships declined to make a reduction for contributory negligence, saying that it should not attribute any blame to Mr Corr “for the consequences of a situation which was of the employer’s making, not his”. They were divided, however, as to whether reductions should be made in other such cases.