Taylor v Somerset Health Authority
Citations:  PIQR P262;  4 Med LR 34;  CLY 2972.
A man with serious heart disease died of a heart attack due to his doctor’s negligent failure to diagnose the disease. When the claimant, his wife, visited the hospital, she was told of his death. The claimant suffered shock, and demanded to see the body because she did not really believe what she was being told. She suffered further shock when she saw the body, and ultimately suffered from psychiatric illness. The claimant sued the Health Authority in negligence for her psychiatric injury.
The case turned on whether the defendant owed the claimant a duty of care as a secondary victim, under the Alcock criteria:
- What constituted the ‘event’ or its ‘immediate aftermath’ in this case?
- Had the claimant witnessed the event or its immediate aftermath with her own unaided senses?
The High Court held that the defendant did not owe the claimant a duty of care. This was because she had not witnessed the event (which was the negligent failure to diagnose) or its immediate aftermath. The heart attack was a long time after the event: so it was not part of the immediate aftermath. Even if it were, the claimant did not witness the immediate aftermath with her own unaided senses.
This Case is Authority For…
This case indicates that the ‘event’, for the purposes of the Alcock criteria, is the breach of duty. If that event is not shocking or traumatic, then the claim will fail. In Taylor, the breach was the negligent failure to diagnose, which was not shocking or traumatic at the time.
A claimant does not witness something with unaided senses by being told about it by a third-party (e.g. a doctor). Once a body is transferred to a hospital and dealt with by doctors, the immediate aftermath of an event has normally ended.
There have been cases indicating that the event is when harm first manifests, which seems to contradict Taylor: Werb v Solent NHS Trust  WL 02978816.
One way of reconciling Werb and Taylor is that in Taylor, the harm was manifesting at the time of the breach. After all, the man was dying of heart disease at the time the doctor failed to diagnose him. By contrast, in Werb, no harm at all manifested at the time of the breach: only much later. It may be that the event is the breach or the first manifestation of harm (invisible or otherwise), whichever comes later.