The law of workers’ compensation has always had a somewhat tense relationship with medicine (one thinks of the bitter observation by a doctor on the Australian epidemic of ‘repetitive strain injury – “The Australian RSI epidemic burnt out … because in the end doctors stopped certifying as physically injured large numbers of uninjured workers”). Nevertheless, from time to time the law has been open to accepting perhaps-novel medical assessments without murmur.
Mr Eaves was a colliery worker. While at work in May 1905 he suffered a foot injury and sought compensation under the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906. The claim was accepted and payments of 18 shillings a week were commenced (in today’s value, £107.50 or $195.30 AUD).
In January 1909 the matter was reviewed before a County Court judge. His Honour accepted the medical evidence that the worker had made a complete physical recovery but had developed a mental condition whereby the injured leg had no sensation and was completely unable to bear any weight. He was considered to be suffering from a “traumatic neuraesthenia”. There was no evidence of malingering. The judge found that because the worker was physically capable of work, his compensation should be reduced to a penny a week (today, 48 pence / 0.88c AUD). The worker appealed.
In the Court of Appeal, Cozens-Hardy MR stated that
The effects of an accident are at least twofold: they may be merely muscular effects – they almost always must include muscular effects – and there may also be , and very frequently are, effects which you may call mental, or nervous, or hysterical, whichever is the proper word to use in respect of them. The effects of this second class, as a rule, arise directly from the accident from which the man suffered just as much as the muscular effects do, and it seems to me entirely a fallacy to say that a man’s right to compensation ceases when the muscular mischief is ended, though the nervous or hysterical effects still remain.
Fletcher-Moulton and Farwell LJJ reached similar conclusions. The appeal was allowed.
An interesting footnote to the case is that Mr Eaves was represented by very distinguished senior counsel, Rufus Isaacs KC, whose later career would include the posts of Lord Chief Justice of England, Ambassador to the United States and Governor-General of India.