Wilkinson v Downton

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Wilkinson v Downton [1897] 2 Q.B. 57, is a famous English tort law decision in which the Common Law first recognised the tort of intentional infliction of mental shock.


Thomas Wilkinson was the landlord of the Albion public house in Limehouse. A regular customer of the public house named Downton decided to play a practical joke on Wilkinson's wife. When Mr. Wilkinson went to see the races in Harlow, he left his wife to manage the house. Mr. Downton approached Mrs. Wilkinson and told her, falsely, that her husband had been seriously injured in an accident. Mr. Downton told Mrs. Wilkinson that he had suffered two broken legs and that he was lying at The Elms in Leytonstone. He told her that she should go to him in a cab and bring two pillows to carry him home.

The effect of Mr. Downton's false statement to Mrs. Wilkinson was a violent shock to her nervous system, causing her to vomit and for her hair to turn white and other more serious and permanent physical consequences which at one time threatened her reason, and entailing weeks of suffering and incapacity to her as well as expense to her husband for medical treatment. These consequences were not in any way the result of a history of bad health or weakness of constitution; nor was there any evidence of predisposition to nervous shock or any other idiosyncrasy.

Mrs. Wilkinson sued on an action on the case.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Mr Justice Wright held that Mrs. Wilkinson had a valid claim for the intentional infliction of mental shock, and awarded her £100. Mrs. Wilkinson was entitled to a small claim for 1s 10½d for the cost of railway fares of persons sent by the plaintiff to Leytonstone in obedience to the false statement. As to this 1s 10½d expended in railway fares on the faith of the defendant's statement, the statement was a misrepresentation intended to be acted on to the damage of the plaintiff.

Furthermore, Wright J observed that since there was no physical touching there could be no grounds for a claim in battery, and as Mrs. Wilkinson did not apprehend any immediate physical violence, no claim would lie in common law assault. He gave three requirements for an action in mental shock. First, there must be conduct that is outrageous or extreme. Second, there must be actual or constructive intent to cause psychological harm. Third, the victim must suffer from actual harm resulting from the defendant's conduct.

Subsequent case law[edit]

In Wainwright v. Home Office,[1] a case concerning a young man with cerebral palsy who had been strip searched before visiting his brother in prison, Lord Hoffmann discussed the case, giving a useful summary and the context of the decision.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [2003] UKHL 53; [2003] 3 WLR 1137

External links[edit]