Facts

Shannon v O'Sullivan [2016] IECA 93 concerned personal injury awards to Mr and Mrs Shannon arising out of a road traffic accident.  The defendant, in the High Court had contested the extent of the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs noting that they had not proceeded to hospital directly after the collision but had only gone there some hours later and had only sought medical attention several weeks after the collision.  The defendant also questioned the validity of the plaintiffs' injuries and their credibility. 

The High Court rejected the credibility arguments and held that the plaintiffs were honest and hard working.  It noted that both had suffered neck pain and psychological injury following the accident and awarded €130,000 to Mrs Shannon and €90,000 to Mr Shannon in respect of past and future pain and suffering. 

The defendant appealed to the Court of Appeal arguing that the sums awarded were excessive and pointing out that Mrs Shannon had required practically no medical intervention or treatment for the first 15 months since the accident. Further, she had missed no time from her work and gave no evidence that her enjoyment of any activities had been adversely affected. It was not expected that she would require any medical treatment into the future and neither was it suggested that her work or leisure activities would be impaired in any way. Similar arguments were made in respect of Mr Shannon.

Decision

The Court of Appeal stated that it could only overturn an award of damages if it was satisfied that no reasonable proportion existed between the sums awarded and that which it considered appropriate in respect of the plaintiffs’ injuries. It noted that awards of damages must be:-

  1. fair to the plaintiff and the defendant,
  2. proportionate to social conditions, bearing in mind the common good

and

  1. proportionate within the scheme of awards made for other personal injuries.

The Court considered it useful to seek to establish where a plaintiff’s cluster of injuries and sequelae are to be found within the entire spectrum of personal injury claims noting that minor injuries should attract appropriately modest damages, middling injuries moderate damages, severe injuries significant damages and extreme or catastrophic injuries damages which are likely to fall somewhere in the region of €450,000 which is generally accepted as the appropriate level of compensation for pain and suffering in cases of that nature.

The Court noted that when it comes to assessing the severity of an injury and the appropriate sum to be awarded it should consider, not the diagnoses or labels attached to a plaintiff’s injuries, but rather the extent of pain and suffering those conditions have and will generate and the effects which the injuries had and will have on the plaintiff’s enjoyment of life.

The Court considered that while the trial judge had determined that the plaintiffs’ injuries were “significant”, the reasons for reaching such a conclusion were not obvious from the judgment and it detailed the approach a trial judge should take in assessing past and future damages in personal injuries actions.

The Court held that regardless of the deference which an appellate court must afford to the judgment of the trial judge, the awards of damages to the plaintiffs were not just and fair or proportionate to the injuries they received. Neither were they proportionate to the damages commonly awarded in personal injury claims involving greater or lesser injury.

The Court was of the view that the plaintiffs' claims fell at the bottom of the scale and that their injuries must be viewed as modest. Accordingly the Court substituted an award of €40,000 for Mr Shannon and €65,000 for Mrs Shannon.

Comment

There has been some controversy of late in relation to the size of personal injury awards emanating from the High Court.  This is exacerbated by the fact that the Book of Quantum is regarded as being out of date, having not been updated since 2004.  However, the Court of Appeal, in this and other cases, has made it clear that modest personal injuries merit modest awards of damages.  We also understand that the Book of Quantum is due to be updated later this year which is likely to lead to greater clarity and consistency in personal injury awards in the High Court.