Nothing to fear but fear itself

High Court confirms that fear alone is not a recognised personal injury and therefore it could not ground a claim in which the court had discretion to…

Kimathi & Ors v The Foreign and Commonwealth Office [2018] EWHC 1305 (QB)

Executive summary

The High Court has confirmed that fear alone is not a recognised personal injury and therefore it could not ground a claim in which the court had discretion to extend the limitation period.

Background

The claimants are part of the Kenyan Emergency Group Litigation in which damages are sought for alleged abuses suffered during the Kenyan Emergency in the 1950s. It is alleged they were subjected to threats which caused them fear but no actual bodily harm. The claimants argue that the threats forced them to remain in detention centres and villages and to carry out hard labour. The claims were in both negligence and trespass to the person. If fear alone constituted personal injury then the limitation period in both causes of action would be three years but the court would have discretion to extend limitation under section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980 (the Act).

Judgment

Mr Justice Stewart had no hesitation in dismissing the claimants’ arguments, holding that the law was clearly established in earlier authorities from both the House of Lords and the Supreme Court. Per Lord Bridge in Hicks v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1992], “it is perfectly clear that fear by itself, of whatever degree, is a normal human emotion for which no damages can be awarded”. The judge confirmed that “nowhere have any of the principles enunciated in Hicks ever been doubted”.

In the absence of personal injury there was no damage and therefore no viable negligence claim. Whilst the claim in trespass was actionable per se (i.e. no proof of damage required), the absence of injury meant that the limitation period was six years and could not be extended.

Commentary

The claimants’ arguments in this case were innovative focusing on the fact that “fear is not symptomless or hidden” and that it provoked “physical change…and an identifiable physiological effect”. However, nothing altered the basic proposition that anything short of a recognised psychiatric condition cannot amount to a personal injury. This is a sensible judgment based on sound previous authority that ensures the law of personal injury is kept within reasonable limits.

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