A Defendant’s Nightmare?
Sarah Davison would normally get to her desk by 6 a.m., work for twelve hours and often head out thereafter to meet and entertain clients. Sleep felt like it was secondary to achievement. She worked in a macho environment and her boss was a man who, in the words of Andrews J, “does not suffer fools gladly, or indeed at all”. But Mrs Davison was well-paid: at the time she left on maternity leave to have her first child she was earning over £200,000 a year. When, after giving birth to that child, she suffered a career-ending injury as a result of clinical negligence, the resulting claim was always going to be of the size that makes defendants and their insurers wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
Andrews J’s judgment on damages (Sarah Davison v Craig Leitch  EWHC 3092 (QB)) makes interesting reading. A court called upon to assess loss of earnings in such a situation is engaged in a difficult exercise, perhaps best characterised, to borrow one of my favourite judicial dicta of Lindsay J, as “a glance at a crystal ball of, so to speak, only a low wattage” (see Douglas v Hello! Ltd (No.5)  EWHC 786 (Ch)). There are often a number of variables and changing any one of them can have a significant effect on the ultimate award.
One approach is to consider a number of possible scenarios, determine the probability of each of them occurring, and then multiply that figure by what would have been earned in each scenario; that can sometimes be the only way to do justice, particularly where a person had a chance of a “big break” which, had it occurred, would have lead to very significant rewards. The kick-boxing claimant in Langford v Hebran  PIQR Q13 is a good example of this approach being applied; it works best where there are a limited number of clearly defined possible scenarios; where they are more numerous, or the lines between them more blurred, the calculation can become unwieldy.
The more traditional approach, and the one adopted by the court in Davison, is simply to make a best guess as to how the claimant’s career would have progressed absent the tort. This will inevitably involve scrutiny of the claimant’s pre-accident career and abilities. Andrews J was clearly impressed by the evidence on this point of Mrs Davison’s ex-boss, a man so busy he had to give evidence “via video link ... en route to catching a plane”. There may also be a need, particularly in a volatile or cyclical industry such as financial services, to assess what the future demand would have been for a person’s services.
Andrews J broadly accepted the Claimant’s evidence on these two points; where she differed was as to the likelihood of the Claimant continuing in her pre-accident role as an equities trader once her three children were born, holding “it highly unlikely that when Mrs Davison returned to work after her maternity leave ... she would have had the appetite to return to the stresses of the trading floor and face the prospect of never seeing her three small children during the week ... However much she would like to believe otherwise, in my judgment it is far more likely that she would have moved to a less stressful position within the bank, involving shorter working hours.”
The judgment is also interesting for its award of £6,500 for loss of congenial employment. Given the description of Mrs Davison’s working life at the start of this post, one may well question whether it can really be described as “congenial”. Andrews J justified the award on the basis that Mrs Davison’s “future is uncertain and any work she does undertake in future is likely to be fairly solitary and considerably well paid”. This is curious reasoning. The fact that the Claimant was likely to be paid less was, of course, compensated by an award for future loss of earnings. It might be said that her earnings are relevant to what was in effect an award for loss of status, but here again surely one has to look at all the circumstances of her pre-accident employment. Andrews J found as a fact that the most likely future for the Claimant would be running her own small business, possibly as an interior designer. Of course, that would lack the stimulus and status of a job in the City, but it would also lack its stresses and uncertainties. Can it really be said, taking everything into account, that the Claimant’s overall quality of life would undoubtedly be the poorer? Less well-paid, certainly; but less congenial? - it is perhaps to be doubted. There is a danger that awards under this head will become routine in all cases where a claimant is unable to pursue their chosen career. Perhaps the Law Commission’s suggestion that this should not be a separate head of damage at all, but rather should be considered as part of the award for PSLA, deserves reconsideration.