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Nervous Shock in Tort Law

Updated: May 13

Nervous Shock in Tort Law
Nervous Shock in Tort Law



This area of law, relatively modern in origin, offers recourse when an individual suffers physical injury not from a direct impact, such as by a weapon or object, but rather from a nervous shock induced by what they have witnessed or heard. 

Initially, in 1888, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in Victorian Railway Commissioner v. Coultas, did not acknowledge injuries resulting from shock experienced solely through sight or sound without direct physical contact. They maintained that legal action could only be sustained if there was a physical impact or something akin to it. 

However, shortly after this ruling, the recognition of injury caused by nervous shock, even in the absence of physical impact, began to emerge. The antiquated notion that the law should only recognize physical injury stemming from direct impact has been discarded, and it is now firmly established that legal action can be pursued for injuries caused by shock experienced through sight or sound, without direct physical contact.

Precedents in Nervous Shock Cases

In 1897, in Wilkinson v. Downton, the defendant was found liable after the plaintiff suffered nervous shock and fell seriously ill upon being falsely informed, as a practical joke by the defendant, that her husband had sustained severe leg injuries in an accident. 

Another significant case, Dulieu v. White and Sons, recognized an action for nervous shock resulting in physical injuries. Here, the defendant's servant negligently drove a horse van into a public house. Although the plaintiff, a pregnant woman, was not physically harmed, she suffered nervous shock and subsequently gave birth prematurely to a stillborn child, falling seriously ill as a consequence. The defendants were held liable.


Kennedy, J., acknowledged the potential for an action in cases of nervous shock but imposed a significant limitation. He asserted that for such an action, the shock must arise from a reasonable fear of immediate personal injury to oneself.

This stipulation implied that if negligence towards one person (B) led to nervous shock in another person (A), who was not in immediate danger, A could not sue the negligent party (X). However, if A could foreseeably suffer nervous shock due to negligence towards B, A should be entitled to bring an action.

The case of Hambrook v. Stokes Bros. further clarified this principle. In this instance, a lady, having recently parted with her children in a narrow street, witnessed a lorry careening down the steep road. Fearing for her children's safety, she was informed by a bystander that a child matching one of her own had been injured.

This news induced nervous shock, ultimately leading to her death. The defendants, who negligently left the lorry unattended, were held liable, despite the lady not being in the physical danger zone herself.

Atkin L.J., while disapproving of Kennedy, J.'s limitation in Dulieu v. White, emphasised that bystanders in similar situations should not be excluded from seeking recourse. He argued that witnessing suffering, even if not directly experienced, could still cause physical shock, and wrongdoers should not escape liability in such instances.

In Dolley v. Commell Laird and Co., the plaintiff, a crane driver, suffered nervous shock upon witnessing a crane rope break, causing its load to fall onto men working below. The defendants' negligence led to the rope's failure, resulting in their liability to the plaintiff.

Similarly, in Owens v. Liverpool Corporation, the Court of Appeal upheld the plaintiff's action for nervous shock, despite the absence of peril to human life. The shock was induced by an obstruction caused by a coffin containing the plaintiff's relative.

The court dismissed the argument of peculiar susceptibility of mourners as a defence. Mackinnon, L.J., emphasised that negligence perpetrators must accept the idiosyncrasies of their victims, even if they increase the risk or extent of harm.

However, in King v. Phillips, a different outcome occurred. The defendant's servant negligently backed a taxi-cab into a boy on a tricycle. Although the boy's mother, at a distance and unable to see her son, heard his scream and suffered nervous shock, the defendants were not held liable. 

Singleton, L.J., reasoned that the driver owed a duty to the boy, not the mother, who was outside the area of reasonable apprehension.

This decision contrasts with Hambrook v. Stokes Bros., where a mother, fearing for her children's safety, suffered nervous shock and successfully recovered. This discrepancy suggests a need to reassess King v. Phillips.

For an action for nervous shock, a person need not be within the physical injury zone but merely positioned to be affected by what they see or hear. Hence, reconsideration of King v. Phillips seems warranted.


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