Dulieu v White & Sons – Case Summary

Dulieu v White & Sons

High Court

Citations: [1901] 2 KB 669.


The claimant was a pregnant woman who was behind the bar at a pub when the defendant’s servant crashed a coach into the building. The incident sent her into shock, which caused her to give birth prematurely. The child was born disabled due to its premature birth. The claimant sued for damages.

  1. Did the defendant owe the claimant a duty not to cause mental harm?
  2. Was the claimant’s mental harm, and the premature birth, too remote to be recoverable?

The High Court held in favour of the claimant. She was able to recover damages for the shock she had suffered.

This Case is Authority For…

A defendant owes a duty not to cause mental injury to people who reasonably anticipate that they are about to suffer physical harm from the defendant’s actions.

Where the claimant reasonably believes they are at risk of physical harm, mental harm is assumed to be non-remote.


Kennedy J stated that lesser frights, fear, and general distress are not actionable in negligence – there must be some ‘bodily illness’. Later cases have interpreted this to mean that the claimant must suffer a recognised psychiatric illness.

Since this is an old case, it is unlikely that the claimant had been diagnosed with a mental illness. However, the court still concluded that she suffered ‘bodily injury’. The court seemed to classify the premature birth as an injury. Alternatively, it may be that the court classified the injury to the unborn child as an injury to the mother. This would be in line with later cases which have treated unborn children injured in utero as legally indistinct from their mothers: Yah v Medway NHS Foundation Trust [2018] EWHC 2964.

Kennedy J also noted that it is irrelevant to the remoteness issue whether the claimant was especially vulnerable to mental harm. The ‘eggshell skull’ rule applied: if any physical injury was foreseeable, the defendant must take the claimant as they find her.