Mental illness and negligence

Posted: 26th March 2015

StressIn a test case which raises important issues in respect of injuries caused by mentally ill people, a man who risked his life when trying to rescue his uncle – who burned himself to death whilst in the grip of a florid psychotic episode – is fighting for compensation at the Court of Appeal.

The uncle, who had a history of paranoid schizophrenia, had poured petrol over his head before flicking a cigarette lighter. His nephew, who had wrestled with him in an attempt to save him from self-immolation, was caught in the ensuing blaze. He suffered severe burns, covering his face and 35 per cent of his body, and had since been stricken by post traumatic stress disorder.

The nephew sought damages from his uncle’s household insurers, claiming that his relative had been negligent. However, his case was rejected by a judge on the basis that the uncle’s mental illness was so extreme that he bore no responsibility for his actions. He had started the fire under an irresistible impulse, driven by his delusions, and was not a 'conscious agent' at the time.

In challenging that decision, the nephew’s lawyers observed that the case raised issues of general public importance. They argued that he had acted as a rescuer, and that to deny him compensation would offend both justice and the public interest in encouraging acts of selfless courage.

The central issue in the case was whether a person who is suffering from mental illness to the extent that his actions are entirely directed by his deluded or deranged mind is liable to pay damages to a person injured by those actions. The Court reserved its decision on the nephew’s appeal.