Category Archives: evidence

Pure PTSD claims and the decision in Pel-Air: a body blow for plaintiffs

Whilst I realise that for most members of the public a juicy set of facts is far more compelling than even the most irresistibly cogent legal precept, I am often disappointed by the scarcity of legal context given in news stories these days. I did however come across one the other day that had enough of both to pique my interest.

 

It involves a man who has sued an airline alleging that he found the tip of a hypodermic needle in his inflight meal of butter chicken with cauli pea masala. The man alleges that he only discovered the needle once it was inside his mouth.

 

The story immediately brought to mind the quintessential and if true, makes the escargot in Donoghue seem like a delicacy by comparison.

 

Based on what was reported, it would seem that whilst the man may have sustained some physical injuries to the inside of his mouth, the focus of his damages claim will be in respect of alleged depression and post-traumatic stress.

 

The interesting bit of law came from a quote of what the man’s solicitor said, which was to the effect that the plaintiff is seeking damages under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) and the Civil Aviation (Carrier’s Liability) Act, which for ease of reference I’ll give the somewhat unfortunate acronym of CACLA.

 

Negligence actions framed as a breach of the ACL provide a useful means of circumventing the various liability hurdles and damages caps contained in the Civil Liability Act 2002 and its cognate provisions in other states (cf: Nair-Smith v Perisher). For this reason, it has become a common cause of action where a contractual relationship exists between the relevant parties such as there would have been here.

 

Though not specified in the article, the implied term of due skill and care may be the go-to, or with respect to the supplier sub-contracted to prepare the meal (ie. the “manufacturer”, as defined in the ACL), which the article reports has also been sued, a breach of the statutory obligation to supply safe and/or merchantable goods.

 

There is a defence to that latter action if the manufacturer can show the alleged defect wasn’t there at the time of supply. The airline’s claim, also referred to in the article, that the meal went through a metal detector twice before it made it onto the plane may well assist both it and the supplier in this regard. Similar issues arose in a case called Effem Foods v Nicholls [2004] NSWCA 332 where a consumer was injured by a safety pin concealed within a chocolate bar.

 

The article’s lack of detail regarding that aspect of the claim (there’s that problem again) deems any further comment on this part of the claim otiose (such a judge’s word that I feel a little bit of an imposter in using it). But it’s the CACLA part of the claim that interested me more anyway. CACLA is applicable where a person sustains “bodily injury” whilst on an aircraft or during the course of embarking or disembarking.

 

It was no doubt a particularly appealing basis upon which to claim in the context of these facts because CACLA imposes strict liability, thereby removing the need for the claimant to prove negligence to complete his cause of action.

 

However, if a plaintiff claims for pure psychiatric injuries under CACLA, a decision of the NSW Court of Appeal handed down in March 2017 has now made things more difficult. In Pel-Air Aviation Pty Ltd v Casey [2017] NSWCA 32 the Court was asked to deal with the question of whether PTSD is a “bodily injury” as that term is understood by CACLA.

 

At this point I should say that the decision may also prove to be of some moment in the interpretation of other statutes incorporating those words, of which there are a few. Section 25 of the Companion Animals Act 1998 (NSW), which deals with the (strict) liability of dog owners for injuries caused by their pooches, is one that immediately comes to mind.

 

The plaintiff in Pel-Air was a passenger in a small plane that the pilot was forced to ‘ditch’ into the sea off Norfolk island due to bad weather. As a result, she spent about 90 minutes in the water, suffering multiple injuries including PTSD.

 

It is accepted law that where a physical injury and psychological injury are connected, this kind of psychiatric injury will meet the “bodily injury” requirement. Some of the plaintiff’s psychiatric injuries in Pel-Air fell into this category. However, for what is often termed “pure” psychiatric injury, such as the PTSD suffered by the plaintiff in Pel-Air something more would be required.

 

Nevertheless, at first instance, Justice Schmidt of the NSW Supreme Court determined that given the plaintiff’s PTSD had resulted in ongoing dysfunction that was “consistent with chemical changes in her brain and body and alterations in her brain’s neurotransmitter pathways, which [had] prevented a return to normal brain function”, this was enough for it to be properly categorised as a “bodily injury”.

 

On appeal, Justice Macfarlan (with whom Justices Ward and Gleeson agreed) undertook a detailed analysis of the evidence provided by the experts commissioned by each party and in particular, the joint document produced by them after they had ‘conclaved’, which read (quoted at judgment [21]):

 

“There is meta-analytic research evidence to suggest that in some persons suffering from PTSD or Generalised Anxiety Disorder can suffer from physical changes to specific areas on the brain [sic], [eg.] shrinkage of the hippocampus…[or] changes to the prefrontal areas of the brain… [However], the experts agree that there is no evidence available to them (i.e. imaging) that will prove that the plaintiff has structural changes to her brain.” [emphasis added]

 

His Honour then undertook an interesting review of the case authorities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada on the point, which were all highly relevant given that their legislation, in the same way as CACLA, includes the words “bodily injury”, as a result of them all having incorporating the unifying Montreal Convention into their domestic law.

 

Consistent with those authorities, the Court found that something more than malfunctioning or chemical change must to be shown for a claim to be made out in respect of pure psychiatric injury under CACLA. For example, structural or what his Honour referred to as “actual physical damage” (at [47]). It seems that a plaintiff alleging pure psychiatric injury under CACLA will now need brain imaging showing a change in brain architecture in order to succeed.

 

Excuse the pun, but to me this would seem like a bit of a body blow to what might otherwise be a rather straightforward statutory claim.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil, Crime, damages, evidence, Negligence, statutory interpretation

Admissibility of Police Reports

 

Police reports can often provide a useful contemporaneous account of an incident that later becomes the subject of court proceedings, criminal or civil.

However, police reports are prima facie a form of hearsay, so unless the party seeking to rely on the document can enliven one of the exceptions to that rule, the report will be inadmissible.

In this regard, it is also uncontroversial that police reports are a form of business record and therefore fall within the ambit of the exception to the hearsay rule contained in section 69 of the Evidence Act. If admitted as a business record, the report can then be used as evidence supporting the truth of the matters recorded therein, which is of course the main game when it comes to evidence at trial.

However, section 69 contains a couple of exclusions for the kinds of business records that do not pass the smell test for reliability that a document created in the course of everyday business (eg. an email) would otherwise possess.

One of these exceptions covers a situation where the matters contained in the report are recorded “in connection with an investigation relating or leading to a criminal proceeding” (per ss 69(3)(b)). That kind of report would ordinarily be inadmissible, the rationale being that once a criminal investigation is underway, human nature dictates that people, including perhaps even the police themselves, may tend to behave in a self-serving fashion.

In a recent decision that could ultimately prove frustrating for insurers in cases where fraud is alleged, Basten JA in Averkin v Insurance Australia Ltd [2016] NSWCA 122 ruled strictly on the question of the admissibility of a police report.

In any argument over the admissibility of a report, the principal question will be whether, objectively speaking, the police report reveals the police to have undertaken “an investigation which would probably lead to a criminal proceeding.” (Averkin at [28]).

The police report in Averkin described the incident as a ‘stolen vehicle’ case, noted a view that there was likely an accelerant used to start the car fire and recorded the nature of inquiries made of the car owner’s wife and neighbours.

The trial judge took the view that the test is whether the investigation has reached a particular stage where, in the ordinary course of events, it would have led to a criminal proceeding. In the instant case, where the police inquiries were very much of a preliminary nature, the trial judge found that the test wasn’t satisfied and therefore the report was admissible.

However, his Honour Basten JA took the following contrary view (at [28]) and found the report should have been ruled inadmissible:

It is patently obvious that on arrival at the scene the police had quickly formed the view that at least two serious property offences had been committed. If the correct approach is an objective assessment [of whether criminal proceedings are probable], this Court should come to the same view on the facts then apparent to the police.

There is an argument that the first few interviews and inquiries police make can be valuable in revealing a picture that is untainted by invention, collusion and lawyerly intervention. However, where even the slightest possibility of impartiality is revealed his Honour has deemed the risk of unfairness too great.

It is sometimes costly, inconvenient and even impossible to have in court the witnesses whose representations are recorded in police reports. However, when the report reveals even a preliminary view on the investigating officer’s part, parties will now need to find another way to make their case.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil, evidence, Insurance, police experts

The evidence is the only truth we know

One of the things non-lawyers find most problematic about litigation is the notion of truth in the courtroom. Litigation lawyers on the other hand, especially the battle-weary ones, realise how fraught, and indeed relative, such a notion can be.

 

It is perhaps one of the most thorny discussions one can have with a client, which ordinarily goes something like, ‘I know what you’re telling me is the truth but the evidence points in another direction…perhaps we should settle the case.”

 

It is this gap between what the evidence bespeaks and the version of events embraced by each party, which appears at the root of many of the cases that reach trial. In my experience, it is only the boldest of litigants who are willing to lie under oath and ordinarily it is more likely they are simply convinced of their own version over that of the other side.

 

Sometimes a particular version of events will seem plausible yet the way the evidence unfolds, especially in the hands of a capable advocate, casts some doubt on the favoured scenario. This is where the lay-person and the lawyer diverge.

 

Truth is as much a feeling for a non-lawyer, one uncorrupted by the analytical mindset that necessarily becomes a part of who we are as lawyers. The lawyer says that where a detailed analysis of the evidence casts sufficient doubt on that which may seem the most likely version of events, it cannot be accepted by the court, viz, it isn’t true.

 

Judges can also be affected by the same kind of ‘gut-feel’ that one version of events gives over the other. However, this can be the root of a host of problems when from this starting point they then construct their reasons. The clinical ravages of the appellate process await.

 

The recent case of Bradley v Matloob [2015] NSWCA 239 was the one that got me thinking about all of this. The plaintiff was approaching a set of traffic lights driving along a dual carriageway when a car travelling in the opposite direction made a right hand turn into her path. Whilst the plaintiff managed to avoid a collision with the vehicle, she lost control and collided with a truck further along the road causing her serious injury.

 

About 15-20 metres away there was an eye-witness to the accident (who we’ll call “P”). P said that the other car was a ‘tannish brown’ Ford with a black sun grille installed across the outside of its back window. P also said that as the Ford drove off along the street into which it had made its turn he decided to follow it until he observed it turn into a nearby factory unit. About 10 minutes later P drove into the factory unit and found a car that he thought was the same car as he had seen earlier and took its registration. He also drove around the whole car park to ensure there were no other cars like it. The registration P recorded was that of the first defendant’s car.

 

Seems pretty compelling at first glance. Yet the owner of the vehicle matching that registration, Mr Bradley, denied any knowledge of the incident when interviewed by the police.

 

The plaintiff also sued the Nominal Defendant, which for the uninitiated is a statutory body funded by a levy on CTP premiums to compensate the victims of car accidents where the negligent party is either uninsured or cannot be identified. So the dispute as to who should pay came down to one between the Nominal Defendant and Mr Bradley.

 

At the trial it was never suggested to Mr Bradley that he had lied about his involvement in the incident. Instead, the way it was put to him in cross-examination was:

 

“Q: If you had come within a metre of an oncoming car as you made a right hand turn that would be something that you would be well and truly be aware of?

 

A: Yes.”

 

The witness P’s evidence however, was heavily challenged in cross-examination, revealing two matters that enabled his reliability to be questioned:

 

  • He was shown pictures of Ford vehicles of clearly differing colours yet he described them both in the same way as he described the plaintiff’s vehicle, ie. ‘tannish’ or ‘tannish brown’ (at one stage, when shown a photo of Mr Bradley’s vehicle, P agreed that it was not the offending vehicle, though this was tidied up in re-examination by his barrister); and
  • He made repeated reference to the black grille on the rear window of the car he saw, yet the plaintiff’s car did not have one installed.

 

Both of these things, the trial judge was willing to overlook. However, here’s the rub, as it was skilfully submitted by Mr Bradley’s barrister – to find Mr Bradley liable the judge would have to have find that his evidence was not credible. Furthermore, the Court would have to find that Mr Bradley had in fact lied to the police shortly after the incident (and in court) in saying he had no knowledge of it.

 

Whether he was fully cognisant of the need to do so or not, the trial judge largely avoided this submission, which lay somewhat inconveniently in the way of the account he wanted to accept, ie. that of P. The knock-on effect of this failing was in Beech-Jones J’s view (with Leeming JA in agreement) to render the trial judge’s reasons inadequate by failing to ‘engage with, or grapple or wrestle with, the cases presented by each party’ (at [75]).

 

Nor did either of the other parties to the litigation suggest to Mr Bradley that he had lied. This resulted in a lack of procedural fairness, which placed the situation squarely in Browne v Dunn territory, a rule which also applies equally to judges (as pointed out by McColl JA at [6]).

 

The absence of a proper finding that Mr Bradley had lied left only one possible result: that the identity of the driver at fault simply could not be established…judgment reversed and entered against the Nominal Defendant instead!

Leave a comment

Filed under appeals, Civil, evidence, Insurance