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PI and Civil Litigation

Law - practice - procedure

04 NOV 2015

Terry Dunnage v (1) Kathleen Bernadette Randall (2) UK Insurance Limited [2015] EWCA Civ 673

Mental Illness – Standard of Care – Reasonable Man – Objective Test

Court of Appeal: Arden, Rafferty and Vos LJJ

 2 July 2015

 Unless a defendant can establish that his condition, either mental or physical, entirely eliminates any responsibility, he remains vulnerable to liability in negligence if he does not meet the objective standard of care required by law.

 This case concerned a defendant (‘Vince’) who was a paranoid schizophrenic. In a deranged state, he poured petrol over the claimant, his cousin, and himself. The claimant attempted unsuccessfully to stop the defendant lighting the petrol and both were engulfed in flames. The claimant escaped, but with severe burns to his face and body. The defendant died at the scene.

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On appeal by the claimant, the court had to determine whether Vince’s conduct was involuntary for the purposes of the legal rule excluding negligence and liability for involuntary conduct. In doing so, the court separated out the elements of establishing a breach of duty. The first element is to satisfy the standard of care expected of a reasonable man, which is an objective test. The court reasserted that there is no such principle in law that adjusts the standard of care to take account of personal characteristics (the only exception being a child). Therefore, the actions of a deranged and insane person such as Vince still fall within those to be judged by the standard of the reasonable man.

In respect of breach of duty, the court considered that it is only those defendants whose medical incapacity has the effect of entirely eliminating any fault or responsibility for the injury that can preclude them from an adverse finding. In this case, the experts placed the defendant’s ‘absence of volition between 95% and 100%’ and so the trial judge had erred in finding that the defendant’s acts were involuntary. Thus, where there was some voluntary acting, however small, Vince’s mental illness did not excuse him from needing to take the care of a reasonable man and thus he was liable for the injuries to the claimant that he undoubtedly caused. Obita dicta, the court emphasised that there is no distinction between mental and physical illness in legal analysis of responsibility for tortious conduct.

This case indicates that subjectivity, when applying the appropriate standard of care in negligence, is extremely narrowly construed.

Summarised by Adam Dyl and Louise Taylor, Anthony Gold Solicitors