Irish courts award nervous shock compensation to vulnerable boy after dishwasher fire

by Rossa McMahon on February 7, 2016

Irish law has long been thought of as being ahead of other jurisdictions in allowing damages for negligently caused psychiatric injury (nervous shock), but the law in this area has really only developed significantly in the past twenty-five years. Decisions in recent years have restricted this area of the law and have limited the scope of recovery for nervous shock by reinforcing the requirement that there be an actual or apprehended physical injury which gave rise to the nervous shock. A recent High Court judgment focussed on the requirement that a recognisable psychiatric injury be proven and deals with the eggshell skull rule in the context of nervous shock cases.

In Monds v. Indesit [2015] IEHC 808 the plaintiff was a child with an intellectual disability who claimed compensation for a nervous shock injury suffered after a domestic dishwasher fire. The case was taken against the vendor and manufacturer of a dishwasher. The manufacturer, Indesit Company UK Limited, has issued warnings about the potential for electrical components in certain dishwashers to fail which can cause overheating and fire. Similar warnings have more recently been published by Indesit relating to tumble driers.

In this case, a dishwasher manufactured by Indesit under the Hotpoint brand caught fire at the plaintiff’s home in June 2010. Liability for the fire was not in issue but the cause and extent of the symptoms complained of by the plaintiff were contested.

The plaintiff was in bed when the fire broke out and witnessed both the fire and his father re-enter the house to see if there was anything he could do to put out the fire. The family home was badly damaged in the fire but the occupants escaped without physical injury. The family had to move to alternative accommodation for a number of months while their home was refurbished and on return home the plaintiff exhibited signs of anxiety when bedtime approached. He had difficulty sleeping and experienced nightmares with fears that the house was going to go on fire. In particular, he developed a habit of repeatedly checking that appliances were switched off and unplugged.

His general practitioner concluded that he suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and referred him to a consultant psychiatrist who diagnosed him as suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder. The plaintiff’s intellectual disability was a key factor as it was found to have rendered him more susceptible than most to anxiety and so the obsessive compulsive behaviour he engaged in after returning home developed into a disorder as a result of this susceptibility.

The five key requirements to claim compensation for nervous shock were formulated by the Supreme Court over 20 years ago:

  1. The plaintiff must establish that (s)he suffered a recognisable psychiatric illness.
  2. This illness must have been shock induced.
  3. The nervous shock must have been caused by the defendant’s act or omission.
  4. The nervous shock must have been by reason of actual or apprehended physical injury to the plaintiff or a person other than the plaintiff.
  5. The plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty of care not to cause a reasonably foreseeable injury in the form of nervous shock.

The defendants essentially argued under the second and third requirements, on the basis that there was a delay in the onset of symptoms. However, their own psychiatrist witness accepted that the plaintiff had a psychological reaction to trauma and it was clear that the return to the family home was a trigger for the behaviour.

Mr Justice Barton was satisfied that the plaintiff suffered psychological injuries as a result of the fire and that the plaintiff’s intellectual disability made him susceptible to developing adverse psychological sequelae as a consequence of it. By the time of judgment the plaintiff’s symptoms had largely settled, with some residual symptoms and a small risk of recurrence. The Court awarded general damages of €35,000 for pain and suffering to date and a further €15,000 in respect of the future.

There has been some concern that Irish law on nervous shock has become quite restrictive in recent years. This judgment demonstrates that the courts are quite prepared to award reasonably generous compensation for a defined and recognised psychiatric injury. It appears obvious, of course, that a plaintiff who did not suffer from an intellectual disability may have had difficulty in establishing an entitlement to any compensation if involved in a similar incident.

Rossa McMahon
Partner, PG McMahon Solicitors, specialising in litigation.
Rossa McMahon
Rossa McMahon

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