Wilkinson v Downton – Case Summary

Wilkinson v Downton

High Court

Citations: [1897] 2 QB 57.


The defendant decided to play a practical joke on the claimant. He told her that her husband had been in a serious accident in which both his legs were broken. This was untrue, but the defendant intended her to believe it. The claimant believed it, and suffered psychiatric damage as a result. When sued by the claimant, the defendant argued that there could be no recovery of damages for nervous shock in tort law.

  1. Can damages for psychiatric harm be recovered where the defendant intends to inflict such distress?

The Court held in favour of the claimant. The defendant was liable for intentionally causing emotional harm.

This Case is Authority For…

Intentional infliction of emotional distress is a stand-alone cause of action. It is established where:

  1. The defendant intended to cause physical or emotional harm;
  2. Their actions were serious enough that they were plainly calculated to cause harm, such that they would inflict grave harm on a reasonably firm person;
  3. The claimant suffered nervous shock (later defined as a recognised psychiatric illness) as a result of the defendant’s acts.