Dickins v O2 plc

When proving negligence against an employer, employees have to show (among other things) that the breach was reasonably foreseeable and caused the harm suffered. In Dickins v O2 plc, the Court of Appeal said that O2 had repeatedly been put on notice by their employee and although it suggested she make use of the counselling service, this was not an adequate response.

Basic facts

Ms Dickins started work for O2 in 1991 as a secretary, but because of her diligence and ability with figures, was promoted to the post of finance manager by August 2000.

She found her new job very demanding, particularly as she did not get the training and support she had expected. She also had to contend with a long journey to and from work because she had been transferred to a different office.

In August 2001, she started another new job with the company which was nearer home. Again, she was told she would be given training which did not materialise and indeed, the person who was to support her (Anna Saunders) was moved to another department. She asked for a transfer to a less stressful job in early 2002, but was told there were none.

On 23 April she asked her manager if she could take a six-month sabbatical because she wasn’t sure how much longer she could carry on. He said he would find out about it and advised her to contact the company’s counselling service.

At the end of May she told a more senior manager about the stress she was under and he agreed to refer her to the occupational health department on 5 June 2002. No referral was made however and Ms Dickins went off with stress in the middle of June 2002. She tried to return to work the following week, but was too unwell to do so.

Her GP signed her off sick with anxiety and depression. The company dismissed her in November 2003 and she brought a negligence claim in June 2005.

County court decision

The county court judge found in favour of Ms Dickins. He said that her work problems combined with her personality (she had had episodes of depression in 1984 and the late 1990s) had led to her breakdown.

He said that O2 should have reduced her workload and also thought about what support she might need when Anna Saunders was transferred. He also said that the company should have referred her to occupational health earlier than it did and given her the time off that she had asked for.

He found that she was “palpably under extreme stress, a valued employee about to crack up, perfectly obviously, she had said so, it was plain to those two gentlemen [her managers] or should have been and nothing of any substance or of any effect was done."

Court of Appeal decision

The Court of Appeal agreed that O2 was liable. It decided:

  • That the company had been put on notice by Ms Dickins on a number of occasions - but certainly by the meeting on 23 April - that unless something was done, her health would break down. It said that the evidence was easily strong enough for the judge to conclude that the company “had received a clear indication of impending illness”.
    That although O2 had offered Ms Dickins use of a confidential counselling service, it did not consider “that a mere suggestion that she seek counselling could be regarded as an adequate response” The company should have referred her to occupational health and then sent her home. The fact that the company had not taken the steps that it had said it would was significant and formulated a breach of the duty of care .
    That the company’s breaches of duty to Ms Dickins contributed to the severe illness which began in June 2002. She was someone with a good work record who had been promoted on a number of occasions. She had told her employer repeatedly that she needed help but none was forthcoming. This failure to address her problems tipped her over the edge into psychiatric illness.

Comment

This case is significant because the Court said that the company should have known as early as 23 April that Ms Dickins was likely to suffer from a foreseeable risk of injury. This has not always been the case. Indeed, courts have often stated that a previous illness or report from a medical practitioner was required to trigger foreseeability.

The case also emphasises the need for defendants to take steps to manage a claimant’s welfare when an employee reports a stress related illness. In this case the defendant failed to refer the claimant to occupational health and/or to remove her from the job which she perceived as stressful. As a result, she had a breakdown.