17.6.09  

House of Lords holds that Claimant cannot recover damages for loss of earnings and general damages following manslaughter conviction.

Mr Gray was one of the victims of the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in October 1999. He suffered minor physical injuries but significant psychological injuries in the form of PTSD. On 19 August 2001, Mr Gray stabbed a stranger, who later died. He alleged that the chain of causation from the rail crash to the manslaughter was unbroken. He subsequently pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Both Defendants admitted responsibility for the accident. They also admitted that Mr Gray's injuries, including his PTSD, were caused by their negligence. They accepted that they were responsible for his losses, including loss of earnings, incurred before 19 August 2001. However, they denied liability in respect of losses incurred after that date on the basis of the legal principle of ex turpi causa non oritur actio, that an action may not be founded on illegality. At first instance the Judge rejected the claim for loss of earnings and general damages after the manslaughter on the grounds that this fell foul of the ex turpi principle. However, the Court of Appeal overturned this decision in relation to the loss of earnings claim. The Defendants appealed to the House of Lords.  

Held: Lords Phillips, Hoffmann, Scott, Rodger and Brown all agreed that Mr Gray should not be allowed to claim for losses after and in consequence of the manslaughter. The killing was a voluntary and deliberate act and, whilst the stress disorder diminished Mr Gray’s responsibility, it did not extinguish it. Lord Hoffman distinguished between a narrow and wide version of the ex turpi rule. The narrower version, which is well established, is that you cannot recover for damage which is the consequence of a sentence imposed on you for a criminal act. The wider version, which is also supported by authorities, is that you cannot recover for damage which is the consequence of your own criminal act. His view was that Mr Gray’s claims for loss of earnings after his arrest and for general damages for his detention, conviction and damage to reputation were all claims for damage caused by the lawful sentence imposed upon him for manslaughter and therefore fell within the narrower version of the rule. Additional claims, such as a claim for an indemnity against any claims brought by dependants of the stranger and the claim for general damages for feelings of guilt and remorse consequent upon the killing, were covered by the wider version of the rule.  

Comment: The House of Lords made it clear that, whilst it had sympathy for the Claimant, in that he would probably never have gone on to commit manslaughter were it not for the rail accident, his own responsibility for the killing was diminished but not extinguished by the condition, as the killing was a voluntary and deliberate act.  

The House of Lords accepted the basic principle that subsequent events affecting a loss of earnings claim have to be taken into account, as in Jobling v Associated Dairies [1982], known as “the vicissitudes principle”. It also emphasised that, when the supervening event has occurred, then “the court will not speculate when it knows”. In addition, Lord Brown highlighted that “the law cannot at one and the same time incarcerate someone for his criminality and compensate him civilly for the financial consequences”. In other words, the consistency principle as between the criminal and civil courts has to be applied.  

Defendants and their insurers will be reassured by this decision. However, both Lords Rodger and Phillips reserved their opinion as to whether the position would have been different if the index offence had been trivial (as opposed to manslaughter). No doubt there will be further case law on this issue.