piBlawg

the personal injury and clinical negligence blog

A collaboration between Rebmark Legal Solutions and 1 Chancery Lane

Scuppered by the Athens Convention

The Athens Convention has long been a trap for the unwary claimant who either doesn’t appreciate that accidents at sea are governed by the Convention or that there is currently a 2 year limitation period. Most of the reported cases on the Convention deal with the consequences of one or both of these mistakes. However the judgment in the case of Feest v South West Strategic Health Authority [2014] EWHC 177 (QB) (handed down today) now poses a trap for defendants wanting to bring contribution proceedings. Dr Feest was injured as a passenger on a 9 metre RIB (rigid inflatable boat) in the Bristol Channel. She was on secondment from the Health Authority and on a corporate team building exercise being run by Bay Island Voyages when she fractured her spine. Dr Feest’s claim against the Health Authority (as her employer) was issued just before expiry of the 3 year time limit. The Health Authority brought a Part 20 claim against Bay Island Voyages. This was struck out by a district judge on the grounds that the time limit under the Convention is 2 years. The Health Authority appealed. The appeal hinged on the distinction between a cause of action being time barred and a cause of action being extinguished. In common law jurisdictions for the most part when time expires, it acts as a bar to the remedy. In civil jurisdictions it said to extinguish the cause of action altogether. The significance of this is that a right of contribution under the Contribution Act is only available where the cause of action has not been extinguished. Hence the appeal was concerned with whether the limitation period under Article 16 of the Convention barred the remedy or whether it extinguished the right to sue. HHJ Havelock-Allan QC found on appeal that, although Article 16 uses the language of an action being ‘time-barred’ after a period of 2 years, it extinguished the cause of action. Albeit that the Convention has been incorporated into domestic law and modified for domestic voyages, it must be ‘construed on broad principles of general acceptation’. The judge found that if he was ignorant of the English rules he would interpret Article 16 as extinguishing the right to sue. Interestingly the Montreal Convention actually uses the words ‘the right to damages shall be extinguished’ but the Carriage by Air Act 1961 actually includes a saving provision for contribution proceedings. The Merchant Shipping Act 1996 has no equivalent – arguably because the legislators interpreted the Athens Convention as a time-bar. Either way, in the unlikely event that a Claimant’s claim is issued within 2 years of an accident, Defendants will need to act swiftly to bring contribution claims within the same 2 year time period. (The author, Ian Miller, was counsel for the Health Authority and was led by John Ross QC)

What's the limit?

The Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Sir Robert Lloyd & Co v Hoey [2011] EWCA Civ 1060 is a very useful reference point for how the courts should approach the “date of knowledge” under Section 14 of the Limitation Act. C had been exposed to asbestos in the course of his employment. He developed serious lung problems, caused to a large extent from pleural thickening resulting from this exposure. The exposure was before the early 80s. C’s first experienced chest symptoms in the mid 80s, which were caused by this pleural thickening. He was referred to hospital at that time. C’s cause of action accrued well before the claim was issued in 2010. D contended that C’s date of knowledge was in the mid-80s when he first experienced symptoms and had treatment. The Court of Appeal summarized the test set out in Section 14(2) as follows:- a) Significant: As set out in A v Hoare [2008] 1 AC 844, the test is an “entirely impersonal standard”. Taking into account what C actually knew and any knowledge to be imputed to him under Section 14(3), the question is whether a reasonable person with that knowledge would have considered the injury sufficiently serious to justify his instituting proceedings for damages against a defendant who did not dispute liability and was able to satisfy a judgment. b) Attributable: The Court of Appeal followed the guidance in Spargo v North Essex District Health Authority [1997] 1 PIQR P235: that’s to say, it’s “a broad knowledge of the essence of the causally relevant act or omission”; attributable means “a real possibility”; C has the requisite knowledge when he has enough to make it reasonable to begin investigating whether he has a case; C won’t have the requisite knowledge if he’s “barking up the wrong tree” or the knowledge is so vague or general that he can’t be expected to know what to investigate, or if C would have to check with an expert before C could be properly said to know that it was capable of being attributed to the act or omission. On the facts of the case, C’s doctors knew about pleural thickening in 1986 but did not consider this to be significant. C’s evidence was that he was not told about this. Although he was told there was a possibility he had developed mesothelioma, he hadn’t and that scare soon passed. C was not aware the injury was significant until much later. Further, C did not have knowledge of attributability as he was unaware of the pleural thickening. The Court of Appeal upheld the first instance decision that the claim was brought in time and dismissed the appeal.

B v Ministry of Defence [2010] EWCA Civ 1317

  Section 33 and causation: Personal injury claims issued three years after the date of knowledge are time barred pursuant to section 11 and 14 of the Limitation Act 1980. However, it is often assumed that where a fair trial can still go ahead, the Court will most likely dis-apply the three limitation period and exercise its discretion under section 33 of the same Act. The cogency of the evidence and the ability to defend a stale claim are the very important considerations when analysing the prejudice. However, careful consideration should be given to ‘all of the circumstances’, including a broad assessment of the merits of the claim. This point is illustrated well in the recent case of B v Ministry of Defence [2010] EWCA 1317. The Court of Appeal handed down judgment on 22 November 2010. The judgement is long but interesting in its analysis. The Court of Appeal held that: 1.      A fair trial could still go ahead despite the passage of time. 2.      The judge had erred in his broad assessment of the merits - the assessment was to be carried out objectively.  3.      The Court of Appeal found that the prospects of proving a breach of duty were not good, but were not poor either. 4.      The claims faced very great difficulties on causation: they would have to satisfy the "but for" test and could not rely on proving that any such breach had materially contributed’ to their injuries. 5.      The expert evidence was such that the Claimants could not satisfy the but for test. Consequently, the judge was wrong to exercise his discretion under section 33 because the Claimants’ prospects of establishing causation were hopeless.   

Limitation Periods and Abuse of Process

The Court of Appeal has recently attempted to bring some clarity to this area of the law which had become extremely complex.   The Historical Perspective The House of Lords in Horton -v- Sadler (2006) UKHL 27, overturned Walkley -v- Precision Forgings Ltd (1979) 1 W.L.R. 606, and held that s.33 of the Limitation Act 1980 gave a wide and unfettered discretion in relation to the second action to disapply the time limit of three years contained in s.11 of the Act, having regard to the degree to which the parties would be prejudiced and taking into account all circumstances. In Janov v Morris (1981) 1 W.L.R. 1389, the court found that delay in prosecuting an action could amount to an abuse where the default was "intentional and contumelious" or the delay had been "inordinate and inexcusable". This was not followed in Gardner v Southwark London Borough Council (No.2) (1996) 1 W.L.R. 561 (CA), which held: "...a plaintiff who for reasons of negligence, dilatoriness, lethargy or mistake fails to apply for a hearing date before the guillotine date and so suffers the consequences of Ord. 17, r. 11(9), cannot be treated as if he were guilty of wilful or contumacious disobedience" (my emphasis). In Arbuthnot Latham Bank Ltd v Trafalgar Holdings Ltd (1998) 1 W.L.R. 1426 (CA), Lord Woolf held a "wholesale disregard of the rules is an abuse of process...". This found favour with Chadwick LJ in Securum Finance Ltd v Ashton (2001) Ch. 291 (CA), who held: "whether the claimant's wish to have a 'second bite of the cherry' outweighs the need to allot its own limited resources to other cases. The courts should now follow the guidance given by this court in the Arbuthnot Latham case. " Aldi Stores Ltd -v- WSP Group Plc (2007) EWCA Civ 1260; and Stuart -v- Goldberg Linde (2008) EWCA Civ 2 held that, although the decision whether to strike out a claim on the ground of abuse is ultimately a matter for the court's discretion, the finding of abuse was a judgment which was either right or wrong, albeit it involved an assessment of a large number of factors and might for that reason be hard for an appellate court to dislodge. The CPR introduced a stricter regime for compliance with court orders. May LJ in Vinos -v- Marks & Spencer Plc (2001) 3 All E.R. 784 (CA) and Godwin -v- Swindon BC (2001) EWCA 1478  held that there is nothing unjust in a system of limitation and parties who do not issue in time risk having their cases struck out.   The Present Case In Aktas -v- Adepta; Dixie -v- British Polythene Industries Plc [2010] EWCA Civ. 1170 (22/10/2010) the Court of Appeal (Rix LJ, Longmore LJ, Aikens LJ) specifically considered the question of when a failure to serve proceedings within the limitation period could by itself amount to an abuse of process. The court could find nothing to suggest that failure to serve in time is tantamount to abuse, nor in various other cases put forward by the defendants. Rix LJ, held that, even in this post-Horton era, the abuse of process point could succeed. He held: ·         A mere negligent failure to serve a claim form in time was not an abuse of process; it had never been held to be in any of the many cases cited to the court, nor in Rix LJ’s judgment should it be described as such, nor as being tantamount to such; ·         All the cases made clear that for a matter to be an abuse of process, something more than a single negligent oversight in timely service was required; the various expressions used are: inordinate and inexcusable delay / intentional and contumelious default /  wholesale disregard of the rules; ·         Abuse could not be assumed for failure to comply simply because the rules of service are strict; ·         Nor was misuse of court resources enough to turn such behaviour into an abuse; ·         Lateness in service in breach of the rules did not by itself amount to an abuse of process; ·         On the facts of the instant case, the breach did not prevent the court from exercising its s.33 discretion to allow the action to proceed.