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Stress at Work - EAT Case

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Marshall Specialist Vehicles Ltd v Osborne [Burton J., 29th/30th April 2003]

A case on when employees can claim constructive dismissal arising out of stress at workl.

Ms Osborne resigned because of overwork, which led to a nervous breakdown. She claimed constructive dismissal. The tribunal implied a term that the employers would take reasonable action to avoid imposing a workload, or acquiescing in an employee's assumption of a workload, which would foreseably cause mental or physical injury. It found the term had been breached and awarded the maximum compensatory award for unfair dismissal.

The EAT overturned the employment tribunal in robust terms. It castigated the tribunal for 'manufacturing' an implied term which was designed to provide the means to achieve a predetermined conclusion (para. 40).

It stated that there is a general term implied into all contracts that an employer should take reasonable care for the safety of its employees. It then stated that to succeed in establishing breach of the term, an employee had to:

  • (a) establish that the risk of injury was forseeable, in the same was is in civil claims (as in Sutherland v Hatton);
  • (b) establish the employer was in breach of its duty (again, as in Sutherland v Hatton).

then, unlike with civil claims (where the above two steps would suffice to establish liability, provided causation could also be established);

  • (c) also establish the breach was a fundamental breach of the contract of employment.

Thus it is rendered even harder to claim constructive dismissal arising from stress in employment tribunals than it is to win a claim in the civil courts (para 48).

The EAT then spent time considering the nature of the signs of stress in the case, and concluded that there was insufficient to enable the employee to succeed under the common law principles in Sutherland v Hatton. The important aspect of the decision is an unequivocal determination that the high hurdles for establishing stress in the civil courts, as set out in Sutherland v Hatton, must also be met in constructive dismissal claims.