The Court of Appeal, in a judgment of 18th February 2016, has clarified the current legal position regarding the method of calculation of claims for financial dependency by statutory dependents arising out of the wrongful death of a person. The case of Grace Davoren v Oliver McAnena, John Lee and Health Service Executive was originally heard in the High Court by Mr Justice O’Neill in November 2010. The case arose out of the tragic death of the Plaintiff’s husband at University College Hospital, Galway in August 2003 following his treatment and surgery for ulcerative colitis under the care of Professor Oliver McAnena and Dr John Lee. The Plaintiff claimed damages for the wrongful death of her husband due to the negligence of the Defendants and also claimed damages for the loss of the financial contribution her husband made to the household and in particular their four young children. There was an unusual feature of this claim in that it was alleged that as a direct result of the death of her husband, the Plaintiff and her children were excluded from an inheritance of a large agricultural holding in County Clare. This appeared to be the first time that such a claim was litigated before an Irish court. Liability was admitted by all three Defendants seven years after the death of the Plaintiff’s husband and only a few weeks before the trial was due to commence. The case proceeded before Mr Justice O’Neill as an assessment of damages and the Defendants contested the Plaintiff’s right to bring the claim for the lost inheritance. In his judgment Mr Justice O’Neill awarded the Plaintiff and her four children the sum of €1,591,957.70 and noted that it was a matter of “high probability to the point of near certainty” that the deceased would have inherited his mother’s farm and that as a matter of “high probability” he would have passed this on to his wife and children.
The decision of the High Court was appealed by the Defendants and came on for hearing before the Court of Appeal on 19th May 2015. The essential contention on appeal of the Defendants was that the claim regarding the inheritance was one which could not succeed due to the remoteness of the loss and that it was not reasonably foreseeable by the Defendants. The Court however rejected these arguments and noted that the claim was based on a statutory entitlement to damages under Part IV of the Civil Liability Act, 1961 and that once liability was admitted, the standard tort or contract law principles did not apply to the quantification of damages to which the Plaintiff was entitled. The Court of Appeal concluded that the correct approach to assessing the damages in this case was as follows:
- firstly, determine on the balance of probabilities if the Plaintiff has established a loss of a reasonable (not merely speculative) expectation of pecuniary benefit if the life had continued
- secondly, if satisfied that such a loss has been established, assess the quantum by reference to the contingencies relevant to the particular expectation of pecuniary benefit
The Court of Appeal upheld the claim of the Plaintiff that she and her children had a reasonable expectation of a financial benefit and that they were entitled therefore to recover damages for the inheritance of the farm which they had been denied as a result of the negligence of the Defendants. The Court of Appeal did however reduce the award to the sum of €1,003,112.04 but awarded the Plaintiff 75% of the costs of the appeal in circumstances where the fundamental issue before the Court was resolved in the Plaintiff’s favour.
30 April 2016