Cowan v National Coal Board: 1958

An employee of the defenders suffered an injury to his eye in the course of his employment. He became nervous and depressed and committed suicide about four months after the accident. His widow and children sought damages from the National Coal Board for his death.
Held: The House assoilized the defenders on the ground that the employee’s suicide was not reasonably foreseeable.
Lord Cameron: ‘I think that the true test of whether the death of the deceased was caused by the negligence of the defenders is whether the death naturally and directly arose out of the supposed wrong done to him and was therefore such a consequence as might reasonably be supposed to have been in the view of the wrongdoer. This introduces the idea of foreseeability, but it is the foreseeability of the ‘reasonable man’ – an impersonal test and one not dependent on the actual wrongdoer’s own capacity for foresight.’ and ‘Now in the present case if it were held to be established that the deceased had received a comparatively moderate injury through the negligence of the defenders and had thereafter had become depressed and worried because of fear for his future working capacity or physical health and then had committed suicide under the influence of such depression and worry no doubt it might be inferred that the suicide was consequent upon that injury and the result of it, in the sense that but for the injury the suicide would in all probability not have occurred, but it does not follow that such a result could properly be described in the ordinary course of language as the ‘natural and direct’ result of the initial injury so as to make the delinquent liable in damages to the dependents of the deceased for the suicide. In the present case not only is there no proof of injury to the skull or brain but there is no physical connection between the initial injury (assuming it to have been caused by the defender’s negligence and the assumed suicide.’
Lord Cameron
1958 SLT 19

  • Applied – In re Polemis and Furness, Withy and Co CA 1921
    A wrongdoer was liable for all the direct consequences of his negligent act, even though those consequences could not reasonably have been anticipated. ‘Once the act is negligent, the fact that its exact operation was not foreseen is immaterial.’ . .
    [1921] 3 KB 560
  • Applied – Allan v Barclay IHCS 1864
    Lord Kinloch said: ‘The grand rule on the subject of damages is, that none can be claimed except such as naturally and directly arise out of the wrong done; and such, therefore, as may reasonably be supposed to have been in the view of the . .
    (1864) 2 M 873

Cited by:

  • Cited – Simmons v British Steel plc HL 29-Apr-2004
    The claimant was injured at work as a consequence of the defender’s negligence. His injuries became more severe, and he came to suffer a disabling depression.
    Held: the Inner House had been wrong to characterise the Outer House decision as . .
    [2004] UKHL 20, Times 04-May-04, [2004] ICR 585, 2004 GWD 14-315, [2004] PIQR P33, 2004 SLT 595
  • Cited – Corr v IBC Vehicles Ltd CA 31-Mar-2006
    The deceased had suffered a head injury whilst working for the defendant. In addition to severe physical consequences he suffered post-traumatic stress, became more and more depressed, and then committed suicide six years later. The claimant . .
    [2006] EWCA Civ 331, Times 21-Apr-06, [2006] ICR 1138, [2007] QB 46, [2006] 2 All ER 929, [2006] 3 WLR 395

These lists may be incomplete.
Updated: 09 December 2020; Ref: scu.196529