Student who witnessed aftermath of Glasgow bin lorry crash fails in damages claim for ‘mental harm’

Sheriff Court
Sheriff Court

A student who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following the Glasgow bin lorry crash has had a claim for damages refused.

Danielle Weddle, who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the incident in which a bin lorry mounted the pavement and caused the deaths of six people in December 2014, continues to suffer nightmares.

She sued Glasgow City Council for “mental harm”, but the All-Scotland Personal Injury Court ruled that she was not entitled to damages because she not a “primary victim”.

Sheriff Kenneth McGowan heard that the pursuer was was in the fourth and final year of her economics degree course at Stirling University and had returned to Glasgow by train on 22 December 2014 for the Christmas break.

She left Queen Street Station by the south exit, which took her onto West George Street outside the Camperdown Pub, and walked to the pedestrian crossing with the intention of crossing at the corner of George Square.

About 14:30 a bin lorry driven by Harry Clark mounted the pavement in Queen Street and struck pedestrians, buildings, cars and a taxi before coming to a halt against the wall of the Millennium Hotel in George Square.

Ms Weddle had been looking at her phone when the collision with the taxi happened, heard a loud bang, looked up and saw the bin lorry and taxi.

The two vehicles were about 40m (131ft) away from her. They moved to within 32m (105ft) from her before the lorry veered off, but the taxi ended up about 12m (39ft) from where she was standing.

At no stage was either vehicle coming directly towards her and at no stage was she in danger of being struck.

The pursuer proceeded to cross West George Street heading in a southerly direction along the pavement of George Street, where she saw two dead bodies and heard a man on the phone saying something about “lots of dead people”.

She called her dad and told him there had been a “horrible accident”, but she was in “extreme distress” and was “almost incoherent”.

Her mother then called her and persuaded her to go to a pharmacy, where she spoke to pharmacy assistant Michelle Wade and tried to explain what she had seen.

In January 2015, she was referred to counselling after continuing to suffer from flashbacks, anxiety and depression, and she was seen by a clinician psychologist.

The pursuer raised an action for damages against the council, which accepted that the driver of the bin lorry had been “negligent” and that it was “vicariously liable” for his actings.

The pursuer’s case was that she was a primary victim and, as such, fell within the class of persons entitled to recover damages.

She told the court that studies were disrupted and that she still suffers from nightmares as a result of the incident.

Clinical psychologist Dr Fraser Morrison gave evidence on the pursuer’s psychiatric injury, and confirmed that she was suffering from PTSD and that her symptoms were “at the top end of the severity spectrum”.

It was not disputed that Ms Weddle had suffered mental harm, but the defender’s position was that she was not a primary victim.

The sheriff explained that claims for mental harm only normally involved large incidents such as Piper Alpha or Hillsborough - where they were directly involved in the accident. These people would be considered primary victims and entitled to damages.

However, the sheriff held that the council could not have reasonably foreseen that the driving of their employee would have caused the risk of physical injury to Ms Weddle.

In a written judgment, Sheriff McGowan said: “On the pursuer’s account to Dr Morrison, her initial reaction was that the collision between the bin lorry and taxi was just a road accident. She suffered a realisation of growing horror as she moved along Queen Street. It was only as she pieced it together that she realised that something terrible had happened, probably involving the bin lorry.

“Mr Weddell and Mrs Wade did not know what the pursuer had seen. They may have interpreted what they perceived as fear, but in my view they were not in a position to properly distinguish between that and other emotional reactions such as anxiety and shock.

“In any event, they both spoke of the pursuer having witnessed a ‘horrible accident’. As I have already noted that cannot be a description of what she saw when she was standing outside the Camperdown Pub. 

“Drawing all these threads together, I am satisfied that the pursuer did suffer PTSD – this was not in dispute. However, I am not satisfied that she was in fear of physical injury at the relevant time. If she did suffer fear at some stage, that was attributable to the horror of the aftermath of the incident and not to the terror of the accident involving the bin lorry and the silver taxi.”

He added: “In view of the conclusions I have reached, I make a rising in fact and law that the defender’s employee would not have reasonably foreseen that his driving at the relevant time would have given rise to the risk of physical injury to the pursuer; and in any event, that the pursuer did not in fact suffer fear of physical injury to herself at the relevant time; and that accordingly, the pursuer does not qualify as a primary victim and she cannot therefore obtain damages for any psychiatric injury suffered by her.”

Had the court found in Ms Weddle’s favour, the sheriff would have awarded a total of £214,572.40 for solatium, loss of earnings and university fees.

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2020

Other judgments by Sheriff Kenneth McGowan