Are you a secondary victim of social media?

20th May 2019

Are you a secondary victim of social media?

Graphic images of last June’s London Bridge terror incident have been seen during the inquest into the attack that killed eight people.

The drama was seen to unfold from every angle via cameras on buildings, in restaurants, in taxis and buses, on police body-cams and notably from mobile phones of the general public – much of which made its way onto social media almost instantaneously.

This and other recent attacks demonstrate dramatically the impact that social media is having on society.

In the light of this, Higgs & Sons specialist clinical negligence Solicitor, Kate Campbell-Gunn, looks at the law surrounding secondary victims.


Recent terror attacks have shown us the impact of social media on society.

Knowledge of what was happening was instantly available on multiple platforms; information was instantaneous with live streaming of the emerging horror of the attack.

But the invisible victims of such horror attacks – the friends of family of those directly affected – are often forgotten. Their fear and horror must have been intense. In the past, details of atrocities would only have trickled through, and while the grief would have been no less painful, the impact would not have been so immediate.

How does the law adapt to accommodate societal changes when looking at people affected by death and serious injury caused not to them but to close relatives as a result of the negligence of others?

The law relating to secondary victims has developed over recent years but has always been mindful that expanding the criteria of who can claim might ‘open the flood gates’. 

This formed the basis behind the decision in Alcock, the case that arose out of the Hillsborough disaster: relatives witnessed the horror of the disaster via their television screens, many miles away from their loved ones. Did that make the events of April 1989 any less distressing than had they actually been at the football ground? Probably not, but the court’s view was that proximity to the incident is critical for a secondary victim to have the basis of a claim for psychiatric harm.

Therefore, in clinical negligence claims the possibility of a secondary victim recovering damages is very slim.  The chance of the family witnessing the negligent act is unlikely and often the fact that damage has occurred as a result of negligent treatment will not become apparent until sometime much later.

Such claims are subject to strict criteria:

  • The claimant must be able to show a close tie of love and affection with the primary victim
  • They must witness the incident with their own unaided senses
  • They must have proximity to the event itself or to the immediate aftermath
  • They must be able to prove that they have suffered a psychiatric injury as a direct result of this shocking event

All of these criteria can prove difficult to meet and as a consequence there can be no doubt that many people traumatised by the horror of seeing their loved ones suffer horrendous injury or death are prevented from successfully recovering damages from the person who was responsible for this.

There are, however, cases where the circumstances have been such that the courts have taken the view that the secondary victim has suffered life changing psychiatric injury as a result of witnessing an horrific scene or its immediate aftermath where a close relative has been killed or catastrophically injured. In the field of clinical negligence, this might be in an Accident & Emergency Department or during a complicated birth where a crash team have been called to deal with a clinical emergency which might have been avoided with more appropriate management.

The law is constantly evolving to reflect changes in the lives of individuals and while these cases can be difficult to pursue, the damage suffered by the individual can impact on their ability to work and support themselves and their families.

If you or someone you know has been affected in this way, and you would like to look at the possibility of a claim, please contact Kate Campbell-Gunn or a member of the Clinical Negligence team at Higgs & Sons on 0345 111 5050.


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