Lady Justice: Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder

Personal injury law involves an injured party pursuing another individual or legal entity for compensation due to a civil wrongdoing known as a tort, often the tort of negligence. Tort law is an essential first year law course. A landmark case is Donoghue v Stevenson, a 1932 House of Lords decision. The case involved Mrs. Donoghue and her friend attending a café and her friend purchased Mrs. Donoghue a Scotsman ice cream float being a mix of ice cream and ginger beer. After consuming most of her treat, the last bit of ginger beer was poured from the dark bottle and out slid a snail. This both sickened and shocked Mrs. Donoghue (after all, she was in Scotland and not at a fine dining establishment in Paris where snails might be on the menu).

Mrs. Donoghue sued the supplier who bottled the ginger beer for damages. Mrs. Donoghue had no direct contract with the supplier, Mr. Stevenson, who defended on the basis there was no cause of action. By a 3-2 decision, the highest court determined that there was a duty of care owed by Mr. Stevenson to Mrs. Donoghue and the “neighbour” principle was brought into law. Lord Atkins held that people must take reasonable care to ensure they do not injure others who could foreseeably be affected by their action or inaction.

An early type of damage that could be claimed was for mental or nervous shock. As the common law developed, mental shock claims could be advanced on their own without there being any accompanying physical injury, particularly by persons witnessing accidents (that expanded to include witnessing the immediate aftermath of an accident). These days, mental shock is often subsumed by a psychiatric diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Similarly, for soldiers, shell shock and war neurosis were PTSD predecessors.

Since early 2020, our society has been subjected to a global mass trauma. While not a currently recognized diagnosis, Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder (PPSD) can be observed in many of us. This has resulted from the Pandemic and an invisible virus (much more threatening than a snail), but also from the various interactions between neighbours including as it relates to masks, vaccinations, social distancing, and business and school closures. There have been resulting conspiracy theories, polarization, incivility and, of course, lawsuits (most of which will take time to make it through the system).

As lawyers, we have civility dictated by our professional Code of Conduct. Stress created by the Pandemic and our various attempts to deal with it can lead to a loss of civility and to burnout. Being civil should be part of everyone’s personal Code of Conduct. Harassment and bullying should have no place in public discourse.

If you find yourself running to your local City Hall to video yourself yelling expletives at strangers that may not agree with your views, or engaging in similar unruly behaviour, you might want to remind yourself that neighbours are not just people who agree with you. You might also consider counselling or a more productive outlet for your frustrations.

After Mr. Stevenson was advised that he owed a duty of care to his neighbour Mrs. Donoghue, they worked together to reach a compromise, and settled out of court – not for what she claimed and not for the zero amount he had been willing to pay.

Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) is also being studied and recognized in terms of positive growth resulting from a struggle to deal with trauma. The potential for Post-Pandemic Growth (let’s call it PPG) also exists, not just for each of us, but for our society as a whole. Remember “love thy neighbour” applies not just to scenarios with snails hidden in brown bottles but can be extended to scenarios with invisible viruses. This Labour Day weekend, cheers to a snail free ginger beer with your neighbours.

Donna Purcell, Q.C., (aka Lady Justice) is a Central Alberta lawyer and Chief Innovation Officer with Donna Purcell QC Law. If you have legal questions, contact dpurcell@dpqclaw.com.

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