The Court of Appeal has almost halved the damages awarded to a driver in a personal injuries action after finding the High Court’s award was so disproportionate it amounted to an error of law.
The court held by a majority of two-to-one, that damages should be reduced from €160,968 to €83,979, on account of reduced liability on the part of the defendant lorry driver and a finding that the award was disproportionate.
The High Court had absolved plaintiff Caoimhín Griffin, with an address at Killognaveen, Caherciveen, Co. Kerry, of any liability for the Ring of Kerry collision. On appeal by defendant Dan Hoare, of Ballymacheera, Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, liability was recalibrated, with a third of the responsibility attributed to Mr Griffin.
Ms Justice Úna Ní Raifeartaigh indicated her agreement with the findings of Mr Justice Seamus Noonan.
Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe delivered a separate judgment outlining why he agreed only in part with Mr Justice Noonan’s conclusions on liability and could not agree to his findings on quantum. He said he would have awarded general damages of €140,000, cut by a fifth based on a finding that Mr Griffin was 20% liable.
The Ring of Kerry collision
The accident, in which the plaintiff suffered a comminuted fracture of the patella and a fracture of the clavicle, occurred in the dark and damp early hours of November 25, 2014, said Mr Justice Noonan in his judgment.
It was claimed during the hearing that Mr Griffin, aged 21 at the time, was driving at about 75 km/hr as he reached a curve in the road, while Mr Hoare approached from the opposite direction in an articulated lorry, said the judge.
Mr Griffin claimed he was blinded by the “wall of light” from the oncoming lorry, which resulted in him becoming disorientated and colliding with the vehicle. This was “strongly disputed” by the lorry driver, who claimed his headlights were dipped and the plaintiff was travelling at a “ferocious speed”, Mr Justice Noonan noted.
Lorry driver’s lights
The High Court judge accepted the lorry’s lights were as the plaintiff described. He found the accident was caused by the lorry driver’s negligence in driving partially on the incorrect side of the road and with his full headlights and roof lights on. However, he did not accept Mr Griffin’s claim that the incident occurred on his side of the road, following expert evidence given that had indicated his vehicle ended up in the lorry’s lane.
The appeal court agreed with the finding that the failure to dip the lorry lights was the primary cause of the accident, but it found Mr Griffin’s contribution to the collision should be a third. Mr Justice Noonan said there were certain important aspects of evidence with which the trial judge “failed to engage”.
The High Court judge found neither vehicle was travelling at excessive speed, concluding that Mr Griffin had been travelling at 75km/hr. Mr Justice Noonan said this, by implication, is a rejection of Mr Griffin’s evidence that he had braked before the collision.
Braking at first sight of the lorry, the expert witnesses had agreed, would have prevented the collision, the judge said. It was “simply not credible”, said Mr Justice Noonan, to suggest Mr Griffin could not have braked due to being dazzled by lights.
On this part, Mr Justice Woulfe disagreed. He determined that the plaintiff’s decision-making as to breaking would likely have been slowed by being blinded.
Mr Justice Noonan found the damages awarded for pain and suffering and for loss of opportunity were “so disproportionate as to amount to an error of law”. He noted it had been accepted that Mr Griffin was no longer able to work as an electrician or play football due to his injuries, and he was now working as a farmer, which did not involve excessively strenuous work.
The court reduced total damages awarded to €125,968, which was, in turn, cut by a third to €83,979 due to the finding that Mr Griffin was partially responsible for the collision. The issue of legal costs will be decided at a later date.