Collins v Wilkinsons Store Ltd, QBD, (Whipple LJ), [2017]

The facts

The claimant was involved in an accident whilst she was working at the defendant’s premises. As a result of the accident, the claimant sustained severe spinal injuries and was rendered paraplegic. The defendant admitted liability for the accident and the trial in respect of quantum was listed to take place in October 2017.

The court gave directions at the case management conference on the basis that the claimant would be moving into an adapted house in January 2017. The directions permitted updated reports to be produced by the experts at the defendant’s request and for the defendant to update their expert reports after the claimant had moved into the adapted house.

Unfortunately, the claimant’s partially adapted house was subject to an arson attack. As a result of the fire the claimant could not move into the house and she had insufficient insurance to cover the losses that had been caused by the fire.

The defendant applied to adjourn the trial date in respect of quantum on the basis that the claimant’s house needed to be rebuilt and the adaptations completed. The defendant submitted that the court’s directions had permitted further expert evidence to be obtained allowing for the claimant to be assessed whilst in the adapted house. The defendant submitted that the experts’ were required to assess the claimant in her home in order for her future needs to be properly considered.

Decision

The High Court found that there was no funding to complete the rebuild and that there would be significant further delay if the trial date was adjourned. It was noted that the claimant had already received £1.25 million in respect of interim payments and was likely to meet the cap in respect of any interim payments in the immediate future. It was concluded that there was no evidence in respect of how long it would take to rebuild the house and the timeframes involved.

The High Court stated that the fire had been unforeseeable and in an ideal world time would be permitted for the house to be rebuilt and for adaptations to be completed, in order for the claimant to be assessed in the new house. However, it was held that this would no longer be possible because of the fire and the High Court concluded that there should not be any further delay to the claim being resolved as the accident had happened approximately four years ago.

It was held that the trial should continue to go ahead in October 2017 because there needed to be finality to the litigation between the parties. It was stated that if the trial had been vacated, there needed to be sufficient funds for the rebuild and a timetable in respect of when the work would be completed. Whilst in this case, there was a lack of evidence to support that sufficient funds were available and no timescales were given as to when the house would be completed.

The High Court concluded that the issues between the parties could be resolved without the need for further expert reports to be completed following an assessment of the claimant in her new house. Although the defendant had earlier been permitted to have its experts’ assess the claimant in her new house, it was seen that this was not an essential requirement for the progression of the litigation. Also the High Court concluded that final opinions could be provided in respect of the claimant’s future needs, even though she was not in the house.

The High Court concluded that the fire was unfortunate and that it would be significantly more unfair to the claimant if the defendant was permitted to adjourn the trial. It was specifically stated that the defendant failed to provide strong and cogent evidence to support that there was a need for the trial to be adjourned. As a result, the defendant’s application to adjourn the trial was unsuccessful.

What this means for you

This is an interesting case which shows that the courts require strong and cogent evidence in order to permit an application for a trial to be adjourned. In this case, the claimant’s partially adapted house was subject to an unforeseen arson attack. It can be seen that the court sympathised with the claimant and assessed that on balance, there would be more unfairness to her if the trial was adjourned than to the defendant if the trial was not adjourned.

CPR, r. 3.1(2)(b) gives the court the power to adjourn or bring forward a hearing and when exercising this power the court must consider the overriding objective of dealing with cases justly and at proportionate cost. As a result, it can be seen that the courts will look at all of the circumstances of each case when considering whether an adjournment of a trial should be permitted. Also, if an adjournment is permitted then it is likely to be on the basis that the party which sought the adjournment bears their own costs.

It can be seen that the requested adjournment was not permitted because the High Court believed that sufficient expert evidence could be obtained without the need for the claimant to be living in her newly adapted house. It was also considered that the claimant’s accident had occurred approximately four years ago and there needed to be finality to the litigation. Further, there was no evidence as to when the claimant’s house would be rebuilt and it was not seen as being necessary for the experts to assess the claimant in their house in relation to their future needs.

This case may have been decided differently had the claimant been in a position to have her house rebuilt and had a timeline been provided in respect of when the adaptations could be completed. In addition, the claimant was near to reaching the cap on her interim payments and there was no evidence as to when the house would be rebuilt. If there had been sufficient evidence then the High Court may have taken the view that the trial could be adjourned, because directions could have been given and a plan of action put in place to ensure that the claim would be resolved. However, this was not the case here, and there was no estimate as to when the trial could take place if the current trial was adjourned.