A former HR manager who sued her American employer for £1.25m after developing chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) has had her claim dismissed at the High Court.
Joanna MacLennan worked in the London office of financial services company Hartford for just over a year before she felt “dizzy and ill” and left the office, never to return.
She was diagnosed with CFS a few months later in the spring of 2006, the court heard.
Mr Justice Hickinbottom said MacLennan claimed she developed CFS as a result of “the amount and nature” of her work at Hartford, and “the indications of impending harm to her health arising from stress at work were sufficiently plain that Hartford, as a reasonable employer, realised or ought to have realised that it should take steps to prevent that harm in fact occurring”.
Hickinbottom J went on: “It is uncontroversial that Mrs MacLennan contracted CFS in late 2005 or early 2006, and still has the condition. Although the expert evidence on the issue is not agreed, after suffering from the condition for over five years, her prognosis is not good.”
Hartford denied that the CFS was caused by her work and that it was foreseeable that she would become ill as a result of her work.
Counsel for MacLennan argued that her work caused her stress, resulting in her immune system “being undermined to such an extent that she began suffering from recurring and persistent infections from January 2005, culminating in chicken box in late 2005 and early 2006”. The chicken pox, it was alleged, triggered her CFS.
Hickinbottom J agreed that MacLennan worked hard, but said “a sense of proportion” needed to be maintained.
Although she worked long hours, the judge said MacLennan took compensatory leave when she worked at weekends, and between 16 May and 31 December 2005 had 36 days leave as well as the statutory holidays.
“This is not a case of an employee being made to work relentlessly, without breaks or rest,” he said.
“Mrs MacLennan accepted that she enjoyed being busy and stretched – she clearly enjoyed challenges at work. She was well-liked by her colleagues, even the challenging ones. I consider that she was ambitious. She was reluctant to release or not take up work, even when an offer of assistance was made, which it occasionally was.”
On causation, Hickinbottom J said that it appeared “uncontroversial” that there is “no proven causal link between stress or a deficient immune response on the one hand and CFS on the other”. He said these were “difficult and developing” areas of medicine.
“On the evidence, given the pattern and nature of her illnesses in 2005, I am not satisfied that her stress at work caused any diminution in her immune system, nor am I satisfied that her CFS resulted from a reduced immune response,” he said.
“On the facts of this case, the expert evidence is, overwhelmingly and all but unanimously, against those propositions.”
Hickinbottom J said it was also right to take into account that MacLennan was herself in HR.
“As an HR manager, she knew generally about stress at work and its potential adverse consequences, and the importance of making an employer aware of stress and any perceived risks to health or functioning.”
He ruled that MacLennan had fallen “very far short of showing that Hartford ought reasonably to have foreseen that, as a result of her work, she was at risk of suffering CFS, or any form of physical or mental breakdown, or indeed any physical or psychiatric illness. The evidence simply does not support such a case.”
Hickinbottom J concluded that an employer is only liable for an employee’s condition when that condition was caused by the employment, and when the employer is legally at fault.
“In this claim, for the reasons set out above, I am satisfied neither that Mrs MacLennan’s CFS was caused by her work, nor that Hartford were at fault in that they could not have foreseen that her work placed her at risk of injury to her health.”
Hickinbottom J dismissed the claim.
Roger Jones, partner at Kennedys, acted for Hartford Europe.
Jones said that there were currently no academic articles or research to show that CFS was caused by stress.
“On the basis of medical evidence as it stands, CFS claimants face an uphill struggle,” he said.
“There was insufficient evidence to show a causal link. This will always be a difficulty for clients with this kind of case.”
On foreseeability, Jones said that defendants “had to be placed on notice that there was a substantial risk that the claimant would suffer psychological or physical harm”.
David Marshall, managing partner of Anthony Gold, acted for MacLennan. He said he was “disappointed” by the ruling.