Richard Spearman QC wins important appeal on tort liability and mental illness

Richard Spearman QC wins important appeal on tort liability and mental illness

CategoryNews Author Richard Spearman KC Date

The case concerned issues which had not previously been examined by the Court of Appeal relating to the negligence liability of a paranoid schizophrenic.

In October 2007 the Claimant (“C”) was visited in his home by his uncle Vincent Randall (“V”) with whom he had been on good terms, but who was diagnosed post-mortem as having suffered florid paranoid schizophrenia. C, a rescuer to whom both the Judge and the Court of Appeal paid tribute, was extremely seriously burned to face and body as a result of V pouring petrol over himself. C struggled unsuccessfully to prevent V igniting the petrol with a lighter that V was holding, and both were engulfed in flames. V died at the scene. C jumped to safety from a balcony.

C issued proceedings seeking damages for negligence against V’s estate, and the insurance company which provided household cover to V’s widow (“the Insurer”) was joined as a defendant and assumed control of the defence. C contended that V owed him a duty of care and that V’s mental illness was no bar to recovery of damages. Further, V did not intend C harm, rather it was a consequence of V’s unsound mind and was accidental. The claim was founded on section 3 of the Policy, which provided: “We will indemnify …your family against all sums which you become legally liable to pay as damages for … accidental bodily injury… to any person … in the circumstances described in the contingencies.

Following a trial on liability in February 2014, the Judge dismissed the claim. He reasoned that V’s acts were involuntary, and V therefore had no legal liability to C.

C appealed with the permission of Longmore LJ, contending (in sum) that the Judge was wrong when he (a) held that an individual who acts as a result of insane delusions satisfies the objective standard of the ordinary reasonable person, (b) equated unwilled acts resulting from physical causes or third party intervention with willed acts directed and controlled by a conscious mind which is confused, disordered or disorientated, (c) found that because V’s mental illness was extreme, the case did not need consideration within the wider context of tortious liability of the mentally ill and (d) paid no regard to broader issues of policy and justice. At the appeal hearing, C put the question raised as “What is the liability of a person suffering from mental illness for an act which is on the face of it negligent and a tort?” or, more narrowly “Is a person suffering mental illness to the extent that his actions are entirely directed by his deluded and deranged mind liable in damages to a person injured?”.

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, reasoning (in sum) that (1) there is no justification for treating mental and physical illnesses differently – what matters is the effect of the illness, and in particular whether it entirely eliminates fault or responsibility for the injury caused because it means that the defendant did nothing to cause it ([104], [115]; [127], [131-134]; [159]) (2) an adult who suffers from mental illness is required to meet the objective standard of the ordinary reasonable person, not a modified standard which takes account of that mental illness ([107]; [124], [130]; [149-153]); (3) on the facts, unwell though he was, Vince was not divested of responsibility for his acts which occasioned injury to the Claimant and did not meet that objective standard ([109]-[118]; [135-137]; [145], [148]); and (4) the injury was an accident, and all the Insurer’s other arguments on the Policy wording failed.

For the full text of the judgment click here.

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