Award redefines parental worth

Roger Pearson looks at an important ruling which has set new levels of compensations in certain personal injury claims.

A High Court ruling has brought about an extensive upgrading of compensation awarded to children who lose their parents.

It is a decision which has already won widespread praise and it is one which will result in the level of claims being hastily rethought in a number of ongoing cases.

Personal injury specialist Paul Tapner, a partner at Cambridge-based Taylor Vinters and head of the firm's personal injury team, acted in the case. He says that he has no doubts about the significance of the ruling by Deputy Judge Bernard Livesey QC.

It came in a case where one of the main issues was the level of damages that should be paid to 15-year-old Katy Stolliday in respect of the death of her mother, Lyn, who was killed in a car accident in 1995 at the age of 41.

Liability for the accident had been admitted but the level of compensation was hotly disputed, particularly the approach towards the sum to be awarded to Katy in respect of the loss of her mother.

Until the ruling in this case, damages awarded to children for the loss of their mother have been more or less pegged at a rate of £2,000 a year, based on the 1988 Court of Appeal decision in Spittle v Bunney.

However, Deputy Judge Livesey's ruling has, at a stroke, increased that rate to £22,500 a year.

On that basis, and using a multiplier of five, he awarded Katy £112,500. That was an enormous increase on the £10,000 she would have received had he stuck to the £2,000-a-year figure.

And, even if an element had been added to the £2,000-a-year figure to take account of inflation, the result would still have come nowhere near the sum awarded to the daughter.

Tapner says: "This case is extremely important in personal injury circles. Fortunately this sort of dependency is not too common because most accidents are still non-fatal. It is estimated that despite soaring road crash statistics only about 3,500 a year result in fatality and, of course, not all of these would give rise to a parental dependency claim.

"But there is no question that this decision has drastically changed the way courts now regard the importance of a child's care and upbringing."

He adds: "I think it's fair to say that this latest case shows how attitudes have changed towards the role of mothers and the monetary value which attaches to compensation."

In explaining his decision to increase the usual level of compensation so dramatically, the judge said that, like the Court of Appeal in Spittle v Bunney, he too was considering the view that a jury would take of such a claim.

"In my judgment a jury would have had an eye to the cost of employing a housekeeper when assessing its award," he said.

He added that he considered the "proper figure" for the annual services dependency in respect of a mother such as Katy's was £22,500.

Apart from the higher expectations this case is going to result in for some personal injury claims, the ruling has been greeted outside the legal profession as an important one.

Tory MP Anne Widdecombe has gone on record as saying that while no money can ever compensate for the loss of a parent the new approach is "far more realistic" than the old one.