piBlawg

the personal injury and clinical negligence blog

A collaboration between Rebmark Legal Solutions and 1 Chancery Lane

If he told you to jump off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff? Responsibility, liability and causation

It's the primary school teacher's well-rehearsed refrain.  It's also (almost) the facts of Johnson v Silverlink Trains Limited, heard in Coventry County Court on 23rd February 2011. Mrs Johnson was on her way back from seeing Robbie Williams, along with about 65,000 others. She rushed to Milton Keynes station where a throng of people was blocking the entrance. Mrs Johnson's case was that a station guard directed her under a cordon bearing the message 'Police- Do Not Cross'. As Mrs Johnson ducked under the cordon, she lost her balance and fell flat on her face, sustaining unpleasant injuries. The facts were in dispute and the judge actually found that Mrs Johnson had not been specifically directed to duck under the cordon. But even if she had been, the judge accepted the Defendant's argument that liability did not follow. Mrs Johnson was an adult, the risk of losing her balance going under the cordon was obvious, and at most the guard had permitted her, not obliged her to go under it. She freely and voluntarily decided to go under the cordon and that was the cause of the accident. Even if there was a breach of duty, there was a break in the chain of causation. What are the principles that determine whether a claimant’s actions are a ‘novus actus’ that breaks the chain of causation? Voluntary or Deliberate Act A key point is whether the claimant is properly in control of his actions or not. So where a claimant responds with a panic or reflex reaction to an emergency brought about by the defendant, he is not properly in control of himself precisely because of the emergency the defendant has caused. In such a case the claimant’s actions are unlikely to break the chain of causation. Corr v IBC Vehicles Ltd [2008] 2 WLR 299 was in this category. There, the claimant’s husband had committed suicide after suffering depression and post-traumatic stress disorder following an accident at work for which the defendant accepted liability. The question was whether the suicide broke the chain of causation. On the facts, the House of Lords held that the suicide, though a deliberate, conscious act, was a direct result of depressive illness, which impaired the deceased making reasoned and informed judgments about his future. The House of Lords contrasted this to a Canadian case where the court found that the deceased had made a conscious decision to end her own life, there being no evidence of disabling mental illness leading to incapacity in her facility of volition. So, unsurprisingly, when the court found that the claimant in Wilson v Coulson [2002] PIQR P22 QBD was, despite suffering brain damage in a road accident, still able to take a voluntary, deliberate and informed decision to take heroin, the defendant was not liable for the consequences of this. Reasonable The more unreasonable the claimant’s conduct is, the more likely it is to break the chain of causation. This comes from the House of Lords’ decision in McKew v Holland and Hannen and Cubitts (Scotland) Ltd [1969] 3 All ER 1621. The claimant in that case had injured his leg which was left liable to give way at any moment. He descended steep stairs with no handrail. The leg gave way and with no handrail or adult support he fell, sustaining serious injuries. The House of Lords considered the claimant had acted unreasonably: the weakness in his leg meant he should be careful. He was not and this failure broke the chain of causation. In rescue cases the rescuer’s conduct is very unlikely to be considered unreasonable, even when the claimant puts his own life or limb at risk. This is because “the cry for distress is a summons for relief”. Similar considerations apply where the claimant is dealing with an emergency. In Sayers v Harlow UDC (1958) 1 WLR 623 the claimant found herself locked in a public lavatory. She shouted and banged the door but no-one came to help. She tried to escape by climbing out and in so-doing placed her foot onto the toilet roll – which, as it was designed to do, rotated, causing her to fall. The defendant argued this was wholly unreasonable and won at first instance. The Court of Appeal disagreed: given the situation the claimant found herself by reason of the defendant’s default, trying to escape was reasonable and the accidental placing of her foot on the toilet roll was a misjudgment rather than something so unreasonable as to be a novus actus. Some caution is needed using “unreasonableness” as the touchstone. In the more recent case of Spencer v Wincanton Holdings [2010] PIQR P8 on similar facts to McKew but where the claimant succeeded Sedley LJ doubted “unreasonableness” was helpful, preferring to consider a formulation based on “fairness”. Value Judgment / Fairness Following on from Spencer, in Corr the House of Lords brought these threads together in terms of fairness. This requires a value judgment of the claimant’s actions looking at the facts in the round. So where an act is a voluntary, informed decision it may well break the chain of causation. Where an act is unreasonable, it may break the chain of causation. But an unreasonable act that is not truly voluntary or informed (such as suicide where the balance of the deceased’s mind has been disturbed by the defendant’s tort) will not. It’s important not to forget the exception to the rule too. In the particular case of police guarding a person in custody who had been identified as a suicide risk, the police are under a duty to ‘protect the person from himself’ as set out by the House of Lords’ decision in Reeves v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis (2000) 1 AC 330. This exception comes about because of the particular and specific nature of the duty in question and as such is likely to be confined to custody cases.      

Claims and Counterclaims: RTA uplifts and settling on the day of trial

Slade J handed down judgment this week in an appeal concerning the question of whether the claimant's legal representatives were entitled to a 100% uplift on their costs, in accordance with the fixed uplift regime for conditional fee agreements in road traffic cases, where the case settled on the day of trial, but before the trial commenced.  She also addressed the vexed question of whether the difference in wording between CPR 45.16 and 45.17 means that solicitor's and counsel's uplifts should be treated differently. In Amin (1) Hussain (2) v Mullings (1) Royal Sun Alliance (2) [2011] EWHC 278 (QB) the facts were typical.  The first claimant (A) was involved in an accident with the first defendant (M) when driving the second claimant's car (H).  A and M blamed each other for the accident.  A brought a claim against M and M counter claimed.  One month before trial the quantum of A's claim was agreed, subject to liability.  By the time the matter was heard by the Recorder on the day of trial the parties had agreed to a 50:50 division of liability and all of M's counterclaim was agreed save for the amount he was entitled to for hire of an alternative vehicle, the only issue which the Recorder was asked to determine.  The Recorder ordered each party to pay the costs of the other of pursuing their claim and awarded each party a 100% uplift on the ground that both the claim and the counterclaim had concluded "at trial" within the meaning of CPR 45.15 and therefore both solicitor and counsel for A were entitled to 100% uplifts on their costs under CPR 45.16 and 45.17.  He gave judgment that "at trial" must include the date or time the trial is fixed to take place and include negotiations that take place on the day of trial to settle the claim or narrow the issues before the hearing commences.  It was submitted on behalf of M and M's insurer that the Recorder had erred in failing to distinguish between the hearing of the counterclaim, which related to the trial of M's claim and A's claim, which was wholly compromised before the hearinng commenced. Slade J held that the Recorder erred in concluding that "at trial" is not defined in CPR 45.  She said "it is clear from CPR 45.15(6)(b) that "at trial" means at a contested hearing.  As is clear from CPR 45.17(1)(a) and (b)(i) the rules recognise a distinction between a trial and the date fixed for the commencement of the trial.  Further, the rules recognise a distinction between the conclusion of a claim after and before a trial has commenced.  Settlement before a trial commences and conclusion by settlement after a trial commencese could both occur on the date fixed for the trial.  The trigger for entitlement to a 100% uplift in fees is  not a settlement on a particular date but a settlement or conclusion after a trial, defined as a hearing, has commenced." Slade J was went on to consider whether there should be any difference in the way solicitor's and counsel's uplifts should be approached arising out of differences in the wording of CPR 45.16 and CPR 45.17.  She considered two conflicting decisions concerning counsel's uplift under CPR 45.17 when a case settles on the day of trial but before the hearing commences.  She approved the decision in Sitapuria v Khan, an unreported decisoin of the Liverpool County Court on 10 December 2007 and declined to follow the decision in Dahele v Thomas Bates & Son Ltd an unreported decision of the Supreme Court Costs Office of April 17 2007.  She held that the meaning of CPR r.45.16 was clear. Its language was not to be given a different meaning to accord with a construction of r.45.17 in order to deal with a perceived lacuna in r.45.17 in relation to the uplift in counsel's fees, as had been done in Dahele.   This is an important decision to be aware of because is addresses two commonly encountered issues.  First, Slade J grapples with the knotty problem of uplifts for both parties where there is a claim and counterclaim but only part of one of the claims remains outstanding at the commencement of the hearing.  Secondly, she considers the difficulty of the competing decisions in Sitapuria and Dahele, both first instance decisions that are no more than persuasive and provides helpful guidance on the interpretation of CPR r 45.16(1) and CPR r 45.17(1), bearing in mind the differences in their wording.  The correct uplift to solicitor's fees where the claim settled before commmencement of the hearing, regardless of whether it was on the day of trial, was 12.5 per cent.  She then went on to say that the language of r.45.17(1)(a) was the same as that of r.45.16(1)(a).  There was no reason to distinguish it from the clear meaning of that provision.  If there were any doubt about the construction of r.45.17(1)(a), in the absence of any basis for ascribing a different meaning to the words "the claim concludes at trial", they should be construed consistently with their clear meaning in r.45.16(1)(a).  Although the proper construction of r.45.17(1) as it applied to the conclusion of claims on the day fixed for trial but before trial commenced was not immediately apparent, there was no lacuna in the rule.  On its proper construction such a settlement gave rise to an entitlement to an uplift in counsel's fees of 50 per cent in a fast track road traffic claim.  

Risk assessments in practice - Uren v MOD (Feb 2011)

Employers doubtless hope that their risk assessments will sit on their shelves gathering dust and will never need to be dug out (except, of course, to be updated) as part of a disclosure exercise. It is obvious that the purpose of the assessment is to encourage employers to think of risks to their employees and to get them to take steps to reduce those risks. But how far does an employer have to go when risk assessing? Can an employer delegate the exercise of carrying out a risk assessment? What is the point anyway of the risk assessment in personal injury litigation?   These questions were all considered in the recent case of Uren v Corporate Leisure (UK) Ltd and MOD (Unreported, 2nd February 2011).  Mr. Uren was employed by the MOD and was taking part in a game at a 'Health and Fun Day' (not in Afghanistan but RAF High Wycombe). The game involved retrieving plastic fruit from an inflatable pool with sides which were cylindrical and 1.04 metres high and with water 18 inches deep. Tragically Mr Uren dived into the pool head first and was rendered tetraplegic as a result of breaking his neck. The issue was whether the defendants were in breach of their common law duty of care. Accordingly the questions for the court were the magnitude of the risk and whether such risk could reasonably be reduced or eliminated. The defendants succeeded at trial but the claimant's appeal was allowed on the basis that the judge failed to give sufficient reasons for preferring the defendants' expert.   The Court of Appeal in Uren made some useful comments on risk assessments. Smith L.J. commented that it was obvious that the failure to carry out a proper risk assessment could never be the direct cause of an injury. It may be indirectly causative where it can be shown that some action could reasonably have been taken which would have prevented the injury had been a proper assessment been carried out. The role of the risk assessment at trial is therefore very often bound up with assessing the magnitude of the risk of injury as well as what steps could have been taken to prevent it.   One of the difficulties with those carrying out risk assessments is how far the assessor needs to go. There was some discussion in the case about the impossibility of considering every variable in a given activity. Smith L.J. commented that formal risk assessments are probably more effective in relation to static conditions or activities which are often repeated in a fairly routine way but they may be a less effective tool where a lot of variables may come into play. She expressed sympathy with the recommendation to 'keep it simple'. Defendants may well want to use this passage when being criticised for a simple risk assessment which does not cover every variable. Equally, when faced with a poor generic assessment (created simply to tick the box) claimants will want to draw attention to Smith L.J.'s comment that risk assessments are an 'opportunity for intelligent and well-informed appraisal of risk'.   On the question of whether the risk assessment can be delegated, Smith L.J. reiterated that it could not. However she said that where an employer used a contractor for an activity and satisfied himself that the contractor had carried out a thorough risk assessment, that might lead to the conclusion that the risk assessment carried out by the employer was suitable and sufficient even though not as detailed as would otherwise be required. In the case of Uren the two defendants had not even conferred and so the court had little difficulty in saying that the MOD could not properly rely on the contractor's assessment.    

A risky business

The Claimant/Appellant in Robert Uren v Corporate Leisure & The Ministry of Defence was meant to be participating in a day which promoted his health.  It was on said day that his accident occurred.  He broke his neck after jumping head first into a shallow pool during a team exercise.   In its decision handed down last week, the Court of Appeal affirmed that an employer’s duty to undertake a risk assessment for a potentially hazardous activity was non-delegable: Regulation 3 Management of Health & Safety Regulations 1999.  However, if an employer in fact delegated this task to a contractor then such a risk assessment could theoretically still be deemed to be ‘suitable and sufficient’ even if it was not as detailed as it could otherwise have been.   This case at first blush appears to formulate a useful foundation to businesses allowing risk assessments to be carried out on their behalf.  Nevertheless, in fact it shows that great caution must be taken when asking another to perform this obligation.  Mere “tick-box” assessments were disapproved of but simple assessments would suffice if there were few variables.  The employer needs to assess the risk assessment produced thoroughly in any event.    In the instant case, the risk assessment carried out was not considered sufficient, hence there could not have been proper reliance placed upon it. Causation can often come to the rescue of deficient risk assessments but it is well established that there will usually not be any mileage in employers alleging that the risk of injury was only slight.    The Court of Appeal held that the judge at first instance did not pay sufficient regard to eye-witness accounts about how dangerous this game played by the RAF was and failed to take into account the differing views of the experts when preferring one over the other.  Accordingly, he failed to balance risk with societal utility commensurately, albeit a balancing exercise of this nature was the correct one.     Their Lordships were clearly emphasising that the risk assessment obligation was crucial, not only to employers but also to judges: who should not simply skip to the balancing exercise.   The successful appeal means that there will be a re-trial.  I will now let others take the risk of guessing what the final outcome will (or should) be…?

Dealing with the discount rate review

A settlement award of £7.85 million (capitalised current value) was recently agreed in the case of TBE v Royal Berkshire NHS Trust.  The award comprises a lump sum payment of £3,660,700 plus annual payments index linked to ASHE 6115 of £140,000 to age 19 and £225,000 from age 19 for life.    The case involved a 10 year-old claimant, TBE (name abbreviated to protect his and his family's privacy), who has severe cerebral palsy caused by medical negligence during his birth. The award of damages will be overseen by the Court of Protection and will be used to provide TBE with the 24 hour care, equipment, therapies and accommodation he will need for the rest of his life.    The order giving effect to the compromise of TBE’s claim included a mechanism for reassessing the multipliers used in calculating his claims for future losses at the conclusion of the review of the discount rate announced by the Lord Chancellor on 9 November 2010. The discount rate which was set at 2.5% by the Damages (Personal Injury) Order 2001 was based on yields generated by index-linked government stock (ILGS). However the rate has not been varied since 2001 and has become increasingly unrealistic in that a 2.5% per year real and net discount rate has not been achieved since the rate was first set.   Accordingly it was necessary for the parties to agree and for the order to include the matters which will in due course be reassessed. In particular, it was necessary to define (1) the “future life sum” (LS)  (2)  the full life multiplier (LM) representing a term certain from Table 28  (3) the “future earnings sum” (ES”) and (4) the earnings multiplier again representing a term certain from Table 28. The intention is that once the Lord Chancellor has concluded his review and determined any new discount rate, the new full life multiplier (“NLM”) and the new earnings multiplier (“NEM”) will be recalculated by reference to Table 28 using that new discount rate.   To arrive at the LS it is necessary to deduct (1) general damages and interest (2) past losses and interest (3) capital expenditure and other costs in the first year (4) CRU (5) any adaptation costs and other costs associated with the immediate purchase of a property.   The advantage to a Claimant of adjourning the issue of the discount rate is that as a result of the review the rate may be decreased resulting in a higher multiplier for future loss. However, careful consideration needs to be given as to whether this is appropriate. For example, the multiplicand under the principles in Roberts -v- Johnstone is also calculated by reference to the discount rate. It follows that a reduction in the discount rate, whilst increasing the multiplier, will decrease the multiplicand to which that multiplier is applied.  There is also the risk that the discount rate may be increased rather than decreased. In the present economic climate this seems unlikely. However, the economy, both in this country and abroad, may look very different in say 18 months or 2 years. Clients will therefore need to be given careful financial advice before agreeing the final form of order and legal advisers would be well advised to record both what that advice is and the fact that it has been given.       

RTA Insurer not liable for the 'same damage' as its insured

In Jubilee Motors Syndicate v Volvo Truck & Bus (Southern) Limited (2010) Jubilee, a road traffic insurer within the meaning of the Road Traffic Act 1988, had been ordered to pay damages following the settlement of a claim against its insured (Volvo) by an injured third party. Jubilee thereafter instigated contribution proceedings against its insured under the Civil Liabiliy (Contribution) Act 1978. Its argument was two-fold. First, it alleged that it was a "person liable in respect of the same damage" as its insured under section 1(1) of the 1978 Act. Alternatively, Jubilee  relied upon section 1(4) of the Act, which provided that "a person who has made or agreed to make any payment in bona fide settlement or compromise of any claim made against him in respect of any damage (including a payment into court which has been accepted) shall be entitled to recover contribution in accordance with this section without regard to whether or not he himself is or ever was liable in respect of the damage" Striking out the contribution claim, the Court held that the terms "same damage" and "in respect of" in s.1(1) of the 1978 Act had to be construed narrowly, in accordance with established case-law. Unlike any potential liability that Volvo might have owed the injured third party directly (i.e as the tortfeasor), Jubilee's liability was contingent on its contractual obligations under the policy of insurance. The 1988 Act did not render Jubilee liable for the third party's personal injuries as such, but rather to satisfy a judgment resulting from the third party's suffering of those personal injuries, as caused by Volvo. Jubilee had never caused the third party any loss or injury. It was never directly, or vicariously, liable for the third party's injuries and could not be regarded as a  'wrongdoer' of any kind.  The claim under s.1(4) of the 1978 Act was also struck out. That section could not be read as having a meaning different from, or extending beyond, the court's definition of "same damage" in s.1(1) of the 1978 Act. Both sections had to be read together. Do you agree with the Court's analysis in this case? Should it matter that Jubilee's liability to pay the agreed settlement with Volvo arose either from the Statutory framework under the Road Traffic Act 1988, or under the policy of insurance?      

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.   

No liability for stressful disciplinary process: Dermott v LB Harrow

In a judgment handed down on 21 January 2011, McKay J dismissed a claim for psychiatric injury suffered by the claimant during a protracted disciplinary process. The claimant alleged a large number of breaches of his employer’s duty to take reasonable care to protect his health and a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. The judge applied the guidance in Eastwood v Magnox [2003] 1 AC 403 and Hatton v Sunderland [2003] 1 AC 503. He dismissed all of the allegations bar one. He found that a lie told by the defendant to the claimant about the reason for a change in the composition of an appeal panel was sufficiently serious to amount to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. However, this single breach had not caused or made a material contribution to the Claimant’s injury. Andrew Warnock and Rebecca Grant acted for the Defendant.  

Should sperm donors be entitled to claim joint residency?

On 15 November 2010, the Court of Appeal adjudicated a custody battle over two children conceived by artificial insemination by a lesbian couple using donated sperm (the case of T v T). In this unusual case, the sperm donor had parental responsibility for the children and applied for further access. In June 2010, a Court at first instance granted the father joint residency, which allowed him equal access to the children, involving 152 night stays. The couple applied for a primary residency order on the basis that the original order "marginalised" the mother's partner’s rights. In its judgment dated 1st December 2010 ([2010] EWCA Civ 1366) the Court of Appeal refused to overturn the joint residency order on the basis that it was appropriate to include the father in the order in the event that the mother died.