It is a long established rule of law that a tortfeasor will be held liable for the consequences of his negligent act, even if his victim suffers an unusually high level of damage. The High Court recently considered the rule where a taxi driver was awarded circa €82,000 for injuries he sustained as a result of a road traffic accident.

The Plaintiff, Patrick Murphy, was injured when a vehicle driven by Francis Carey, an employee of Malone Engineering, turned across his path. The Plaintiff realised the accident was inevitable and braced himself for impact by gripping the steering wheel with both hands. There was a considerable impact between the vehicles and both were written off after the accident.

Liability was not contested and the case proceeded as an assessment of damages.

The Defendants accepted that, as a result of the accident, the Plaintiff had suffered both physical and psychological injuries.

The dispute between the parties centred on the extent of the Plaintiff’s physical injuries. The Defendants maintained that the Plaintiff had advanced pre-accident osteoarthritis which was temporarily aggravated by the accident, for a maximum period of 24 months. They argued that any ongoing symptoms were not connected and could not be attributed to the accident.

The Plaintiff maintained that while his generalised osteoarthritis had developed before the accident, the accident triggered symptoms in what was otherwise a dormant underlying condition that had never previously troubled him.

The Plaintiff’s medical evidence was that when he braced himself before the crash, the force of the impact was transferred through the steering wheel and up his forearms until it reached his previously asymptomatic arthritic elbow joints.

The Defendants medical expert accepted that there may have been some aggravation of the Plaintiff’s pre-existing arthritis in the elbows at the time of the accident, however, as far as he was concerned, the soft tissue injuries and any aggravation of the underlying degenerative changes had now subsided. He was of the view that continuing issues were due to the ongoing progression of the osteoarthritis in his elbow. Importantly, the Plaintiff also had dormant underlying osteoarthritis in his hips, which was affected for only a short time after the accident but then settled.

Decision

Barton J found the Plaintiff to be an honest and genuine individual. He took into account that at 62 years old, he had previously been an active individual. He was no longer able to take part in his former hobbies of golf, DIY and jogging.

Barton J accepted that the accident had caused the Plaintiff’s neck, lower back and elbow injuries. He also accepted that the rendering of the elbow arthritis symptomatic was likely to be in the ‘severe and permanent’ category of injuries.

Having regard to the Book of Quantum, Barton J awarded the sum of €50,000 for past pain and suffering and €30,000 for future pain and suffering.

While there was a difference in medical opinions in respect of how long such a soft tissue injury like the one sustained by the Plaintiff would be expected to last, this case demonstrates the application of the “eggshell skull” rule, which provides that a tortfeasor is liable for the consequences of his negligent actions, even if the victim suffers an unusually high level of damage (e.g. due to a pre-existing vulnerability or medical condition).