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Rothwell v Chemical & Insulating Co [2008]

Rothwell v Chemical & Insulating Co [2008] 1 AC 281 marked a significant development in the law regarding the recovery of damages for psychiatric illness. The central principle established in this case is that for psychiatric illness to be recoverable, it must be caused by an immediate shock rather than a delayed one.

The facts of the case involve the claimant being exposed to asbestos, which he was unaware of until informed by his doctor 30 years later. The revelation of the risk of developing a health condition led the claimant to experience significant worry, ultimately resulting in clinical depression. The claimant argued that the precedent set in Page v Smith should apply, contending that even though no physical injury had resulted from asbestos exposure, physical injury was reasonably foreseeable.

However, the House of Lords, in rendering its judgment, rejected the claimant's claim. Lord Hoffmann, delivering the reasoning for the majority, distinguished the current case from Page v Smith on the basis that the claimant's illness was not caused by the immediate effects of a past traumatic event. Instead, it was triggered by the claimant's awareness of the risk of developing a condition due to asbestos exposure. Lord Hoffmann highlighted that in Page v Smith, the event causing the risk of both physical and psychiatric injury was one and the same (the accident), whereas in the present case, the risk of physical injury stemmed from exposure to asbestos.

This distinction underscores the principle that to recover damages for psychiatric illness, there must be a direct connection to an immediate shock, as opposed to a delayed or gradual realisation of a risk. The decision in Rothwell contributes to the nuanced understanding of foreseeability and causation in cases involving psychiatric injury.

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