Damages for Nervous or mental shock

By ‘mental shock’ is meant a shock to the moral or intellectual sense; by ‘nervous shock’ a shock to the nerve and brain structures of the body. The phrase ‘nervous shock’ is generally used as a convenient caption for discussing the cases on the subject, but the words, ‘nervous’, ‘mental’ or ’emotional’ shock are now used interchangeably in the present context.

An action lies for nervous shock and bodily illness or disorder supervening on it, though the shock was caused not by the application of physical force to the body of the sufferer, but by words or acts calculated to cause emotional disturbance like fear, sorrow or distress. This is now settled by decisions in England and has been accepted as good law in India (G.G. in Council v. Surajmal. Lynch v. Knight,) though it will be an element to aggravate damages where there is independent cause of action, such as, bodily harm, battery, or any other category of tort like defamation or malicious prosecution.

In Augustine and another v. Kunjamma Kuriakose and another, where the fact of impotency was not disclosed by the husband and his family. After divorce in a suit for damages the Court held the defendant responsible for deprivation of the married life and also made her parent to undergo mental agony. The Court allowed Rs. 1,00,000 as damages.

In Dooley v. Commell Laird and Co., the defendant’s negligence led to the breaking of the rope of a crane so that its load feel into the hold of a ship where men were working. The plaintiff was the driver of the crane and was himself in no personal danger but he suffered shock from witnessing the danger to the men in the hold, and Darovan, J., held that he was entitled to succeed. Here the learned Judge clearly denied the requirement of physical danger to the plaintiff. There was a breach of duty owed to the plaintiff.

It is now well settled that illness due to nervous shock is actionable, irrespective of actual bodily impact. In the words of Lord Macmillan in Bournhill v. Yound. “The crude view that the law should take cognizance only of physical injury, resulting from actual impact has been discarded, and it is now well recognized that an action will lie for injury for shock sustained though the medium of the eye or the ear without direct contact. The distinction between mental shock and bodily injury was never a scientific one, for mental shock is presumably in all cases the result of or at least accompanied by, some physical disturbance in the sufferer’s system.”

In a suit for damages for injury which result, not in direct bodily injury but in nervous shock, the damage must be the natural and probable consequence of the defendant’s wrongful act and must flow immediately from that cause. The standard to be applied in these cases in the standard of ordinary normal healthy persons and not of some supersensitive psychopath.

In Harmbrook v. Stokes Bros, a lorry belonging to the defendant left unattended with the engine running; it ran violently down the incline. The plaintiff’s wife saw the lorry rushing down the hill, and became  frightened for the safety of her children whom she had left at a bend lower down to the road. She received a nervous shock brought about by the fear for the safety of her children which eventually caused her death. The plaintiff was held entitled to recover the damages because by the defendant’s negligence the deceased had been placed in fear and had suffered a nervous shock. The principle previously laid own in Dulieu’s case that a shock must be a shock which arises from a reasonable fear for immediate personal injury to oneself was rejected.

Lord Atkin in Hambrook v. Stokes was of opinion that the liability of the defendant should extend even to a stranger and said “personally I see no reason for excluding the bystander in the highway who receives the injury in the same way from apprehension of or by actual sight of injury to a third party. There may well be cases where the sight of suffering will directly and immediately physically shock the most indurate heart, and if the suffering of another by the result of an act wrongful to the spectator, I do not see why the wrong-doer should escape”.

In Owens v. Liverpool Corporation, a funeral procession was going along the road, when a tram ear was so negligently driven by a servant of the defendant that it violently collided with the hearse, damaged the hearse and caused the coffin to be overturned with the result that the mourners at the funeral who were relatives of the dead man suffered severe mental shock. It was held that the mourners was entitled to recover  damages for mental shock in an acton brought by them for negligence against the defendant, although there was no apprehension, or actual sight, or injury to the human being.

In Wilkinson v. Downston, the defendant by way of practical joke gave a false information to the plaintiff that in an accident her husband had been severely injured, and was laying in hospital. The plaintiff got a shock and got ill and her hair turned white, and life was in great danger for some time, and her husband had to incur heavy expenses for her treatment. It was held that the action was maintainable.

Thus the general tendency in the law of Torts is rather to extent than to restrict liability. The question, however, whether the liability will extend beyond cases of nervous of mental shocks arising from what the plaintiff actually sees to those shocks caused by what the plaintiff might hear from a third party, still remains undecided authoritatively. The criterion of liability, as used would be that of reasonable foresceability.

In King v. Phillips the defendants’ taxicab, driven by his servant, was negligently backed into a small boy on a tricycle, and slightly damaged both. The mother of the boy heard the screams of her child and looking from a distance of seventy yards through an upstairs window, saw the triycle but not the boy. It was held the driver made a breach of duty to the boy, but the mother cannot recover as he owed no duty of care to the mother.

In M.L. Singhal v. Pradeep Mathur, the Court allowed the claim of the plaintiff based on mental torture suffered by him on seeing his wife being not properly nursed and that there was a leakage of catheter. In the case the plaintiff was allowed for the compensation of rupees 10,000.

In another case of Veeran v. Krishna Moorthy, where a child was injured by negligent driving of a bus driver. Kerala High Court allowed medical expenses for the child’s treatment as general damages. The Court also allowed special damages for mother’s nervous shock.

The Apex Court has, also allowed damages for mental agony in case of harassment of the plaintiff by the officers of public authority. The latest pronouncement on the point is in the case of King v. Berry. In this case the wife suffered a nervous shock while witnessing an accident in which her husband was killed and children were injured. The plaintiff had a robust health and was a very competent person. Had she not personally seen the incident she would have stood up to the situation although she would have been sorrowful on hearing it, £ 4,000, were awarded as damages. Denning M.R. observed, the Court had to draw a distinction between sorrow and grief for which damages are not recoverable, and nervous shock and psychiatric illness for which damage are available. The way to do this is to estimate how much the plaintiff would have suffered if, for instance, husband had been killed in an accident when she was 50 miles away, and compare it with what she is now having suffered all the shock due to being present at the incident.

Now it is well settled rule that damages may be awarded for nervous shock which is not followed by physical illness but by psychiatric illness.


Discuss the damages which are allowed for Nervous or mental shock.

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