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Court of Appeal reduces damages by €125,000 in personal injury case described as “the stuff of nightmares”

In a recent judgment of the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice Noonan reduced the award for General Damages to €250,000 from the original High Court award of €375,000.  The Court in reducing the award considered the approach to the assessment of damages for personal injuries where multiple injuries are concerned and the proportionality in that assessment.

In this article Julie McEvoy, Solicitor and Anna McCormack, Intern give an overview of the judgment.

Background

The Plaintiff’s claim was brought in respect of personal injuries sustained by him when the lift he had been in collapsed, falling three floors. The Plaintiff suffered serious injuries including fractures to four vertebrae, his ankle and his heel. He also experienced a soft-tissue injury to his knee, which was not discovered until several years later, several other relatively minor soft tissue injuries and some dental injuries. Furthermore, the injuries led to the Plaintiff developing PTSD and a depressive reaction. Liability was not in issue in this case. The High Court assessed the General Damages at €125,000 for pain and suffering to date, €175,000 for pain and suffering into the future and €75,000 for loss of opportunity.

The decision was appealed by the Defendants.

Court of Appeal

When the matter came before the Court of Appeal, the Court considered and clarified three aspects of calculating general damages.

Firstly, the Court considered whether the assessment of General Damages should take into account the award made for Special Damages. In considering this, the Court reiterated the position of the Supreme Court in Sinnott v Quinnsworth and of Irvine J in Shannon v O’Sullivan that Special and General damages are to be assessed entirely separately. It was stated that it was incorrect ‘to suggest that a Plaintiff who is compensated for actual ascertained past and future monetary losses is somehow entitled to less compensation for his or her injuries.’ If this were true, it would unjustly prejudice Plaintiffs with high special damages awards.

Secondly, the Court clarified whether the €500,000 limit for damages represented a cap or a maximum and explained the difference between the two terms. The Court defined a cap as an “artificial limit” to the award, where the theoretical value of the award could be higher. For example, a theoretical €750,000 award limited to the €500,000 cap. The Court also defined a maximum as denoting the appropriate award for the most serious injury. The Court then considered the judgment of Clarke CJ in Morrissey v HSE, which discusses the difference between these two concepts, and restated that the €500,000 represents a maximum, and not a cap. This interpretation is the only interpretation which does not conflict with the principle of proportionality of damages awards – that damages must be proportionate to the awards given to other Plaintiffs considering the severity of their injuries.

Thirdly, the Court looked at the role of the Book of Quantum and now the Personal Injuries Guidelines in assessing damages.  While the Book of Quantum and the Guidelines can be of considerable assistance where the injury in issue lends itself clearly to a well-defined category in the Book, the Court recognised that in complex multiple injury cases, the application of the Book of Quantum or indeed the Guidelines may prove considerably more problematic in multiple injury cases.

Both the Book of Quantum and the Guidelines note that it is inappropriate to simply add up the awards for each individual injury sustained, as there will be some temporal overlap between the injuries experienced by the Plaintiff. This would likely make the award too high. Both approaches also assume that there will be one injury that is the “most significant” injury that will make up the primary basis of the award. The Court noted that this may be impossible in some cases.

Beyond these points, the two approaches differ. The Book of Quantum advises to take the award for the most significant injury and “adjust within the value range”. The Court contends that this approach, in principle, cannot be correct, as it would have the effect of preventing Plaintiffs entitled to the maximum award for their primary injury from receiving any further compensation for additional injuries. The Guidelines recommend that judges should “uplift” the value of the primary award to fully compensate the Plaintiff for their additional injuries. The Guidelines then advise to compare the total award with similar awards for other injuries. This approach may ensure more complete compensation for Plaintiffs, but it is also significantly vaguer.

In considering the appropriate award to be made in the current case, the Court, whatever individual categories of injury a Plaintiff may have suffered, must take a holistic view of the Plaintiff and endeavour to place the Plaintiff’s particular “constellation of injuries and their cumulative effect on the Plaintiff within the spectrum in a way that is proportionate both to the maximum and awards made to other Plaintiffs”.

The Court, in considering the trial judge’s approach, held that there was nothing wrong in principle with arriving at a global figure for damages rather than seeking to break it down into individual categories.  The Court stated however that the figure of €300,000 awarded in the High Court would usually be reserved for “serious and permanent disability of such severity as to compromise his or her ability to carry out the normal activities of daily living to a significant degree”.

Conclusion

While the Court acknowledge the seriousness of the Plaintiff’s injuries, the Plaintiff had, the Court held, made an extraordinary recovery from those injuries.  The Court therefore held the appropriate award for General Damages was €200,000, being €125,000 for pain and suffering to date and €75,000 for pain and suffering into the future.  The Court in dealing with the issue of loss of opportunity assessed the Plaintiff’s damages in the sum of €50,000.  Accordingly, the total General Damages arrived at €250,000.



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