Widower wins bid for law change

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Widower wins bid for law change at the Supreme Court over compensation for ‘wrongful death’

A widower has won a test case at the Supreme Court to change a law which has led to many dependants of people who have been ‘wrongfully killed’ being under-compensated for their loss.

In the case of Knauer v the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), lawyers for Ian Knauer, whose wife Sally died of mesothelioma aged 46 as a result of exposure to asbestos at work in Guy’s Marsh Prison in Shaftesbury, Dorset, argued that the annual figure for the value of lost income and services (‘the multiplier’) should be calculated from the date of her death.

In a landmark decision, the panel of judges, headed by Supreme Court President Lord Neuberger and deputy president Lady Hale, ruled there was “an overwhelming case for changing the law” relating to the way financial losses of dependents are assessed.

They explained that calculating damages from the date of death meant the claimant suffered a discount for early receipt of money, when in fact the money will not be received until after the trial.

History of the case

Ian Knauer sued the MoJ following Sally’s death in August 2009 and liability was admitted in 2013. At the hearing for damages in the High Court, the trial judge held that he was bound by the authorities to calculate the multiplier from the date of death, although he would have preferred to calculate from the date of trial in line with the approach recommended in a Law Commission report. As a result, his lawyers secured a ‘leapfrog’ certificate to appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

In this case, the difference between the multipliers using the ‘old’ and ‘new’ approach was 2.69 which amounted to a significant difference in damages of more than £50,000.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The Supreme Court confirmed that: “it is the aim of an award of damages so far as is possible, to place the person who has been harmed by the wrongful acts of another in the position which he or she would have been had the harm not been done: full compensation, no more but certainly no less.”

The Supreme Court decided to depart from the precedent set by two previous cases from the House of Lords (Cookson v Knowles and Graham v Dodds) on the basis they were contrary to the fundamental principle of full compensation.

They explained the House of Lords cases “were decided in a different era, when the calculation of damages for personal injury and death was nothing like as sophisticated as it now is.”

Ian Knauer’s appeal was therefore allowed.

What are the implications of the decision?

Significantly, from now on, the correct date at which to assess the multiplier for fixing damages for future loss in claims under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 will be the date of trial and not the date of death.

The implication of the decision is that in most cases, the damages payable to dependents in claims involving fatal accidents will increase.

This is very positive news for fatal accident victims and their families and, as Ian Knauer’s lawyers stated, means that Sally Knauer did not die from mesothelioma in vain – she has been able to help future claimants get the compensation they deserve

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