Claims for damages resulting from serious assault of vehicle clamper to be heard before jury

The Court of Appeal has upheld a decision to hold a unified trial in respect of claims of damages made against an attacker and the employer of the victim, despite the different bases for the claims.

The case concerned an incident in which the plaintiff, Mr Gheorge Pista, was subjected to a violent attack during his work as a clamper of vehicles unlawfully parked in an off-street car park.

The judge described his injuries as “catastrophic”.

The plaintiff claimed damages against Gerard Sweeney, the perpetrator of the attack, on the basis of assault and trespass, and against his employer, Nationwide Controlled Parking Systems Limited, on the basis of negligence, breach of duty, including breach of statutory duty, and breach of contract.

The issue of the appeal was whether, in light of the fact that the plaintiff had obtained judgment against his attacker and was awaiting only an assessment of damages, he retained his right to have those damages assessed by a jury, and if so, whether the trial against his employer should also take place in front of a jury.

The issue arose due to the different bases of claim against the defendants: while claims of trespass and assault entitled the plaintiff to a trial before judge and jury, the claims against his employer, if not associated with a claim based on assault, would normally be heard before a judge only.

The High Court had determined that as there was one event on which the claims of damages were based, matters should be heard by a judge and jury, a decision that had then been appealed by the plaintiff’s employers.

The relevant law is contained within section 1(3)(b) of the Courts Act 1988, which provides an exception to the rule that claims of damages in respect of negligence, nuisance or breach of duty should not be tried with a jury, in cases where there is “a cause of action in respect of the same act.”

The second defendant sought to escape the provisions of s. 1(3)(b) by contending that the claims being advanced were different to the claims made against the first defendant.

The plaintiff submitted that essentially this was an action for damages for trespass of the person i.e. assault and “for another cause of action in respect of the same act or omission”, namely negligence, and therefore satisfied the test in s. 1(3) (b).

The Court of Appeal found that it was clear that the plaintiff was entitled to have his damages claim against the first defendant based on the tortuous assault assessed by a jury.

The question was therefore whether by reason of the inclusion by him of another cause of action, this time a claim for damages for negligence, breach for duty and breach of contract but in respect of the same injuries, he had either disentitled himself to a hearing before a jury at all, or whether he retained his entitlement to an assessment of damages for the assault by a jury, but must have his claim for damages for negligence in respect of the same injury against the second defendant decided by a judge sitting alone.

The Court of Appeal judge, Mr Justice Peart observed that: “One can envisage certain obvious difficulties in a case such as the present one where a jury might be asked to decide the quantum of damages against the first defendant, and the judge separately, having decided the liability issue in respect of the claims against the second defendant, would have to assess damages against that defendant in respect of precisely the same injuries and loss.”

The judge noted the case of D.F. v. Commissioners of An Garda Siochana IESC 44, the Supreme Court judge noted that:

“Joining other causes of action to false imprisonment or intentional trespass to the person, assault, may preserve the entitlement to jury trial but only where there is one act or omission at issue in the trial, consisting in terms of the external facts of an assault or of false imprisonment, or both, and the subsidiary torts are allegedly based on that assault or on that false imprisonment.”

“As to whether adding allegations of other torts to false imprisonment and assault is reasonable having regard to the circumstances determines the balance as to whether the result should be a trial by a judge sitting alone or a trial by a judge sitting with a jury.”

“What is clear is that the Oireachtas decided that…assault cases…should be tried by a judge with a jury. It is only if the joinder of other torts or causes of action takes the substance and nature of the case away from those core jury-trial torts that a trial should take place with a judge sitting alone.”

Justice Peart noted his agreement with this case, which were in any event binding on the court.

He found that a proper interpretation of s. 1(3)(b) of the Act of 1988 avoids the possibility of the undesirable consequence of separate assessments of damages in respect of the same injuries and loss.

Thus, the fact that the second defendant did not actually assault the plaintiff was not the point. The point was that the claim made against the second defendant was that but for its negligence, breach of duty and breach of contract, this assault would not have occurred.

The two causes of action were therefore inextricably linked, and came within the exception of s.1(3)(b) of the 1988 Act.

Concluding, the judge found that there was “nothing intrinsically problematic about a unified trial of the liability claims against the second defendant assessment followed by an assessment of the damages which must take place whether or not liability is found against the second defendant.”

Neither would there be any difficulty in the trial judge directing the jury on any issues of law it will have to decide before it can find the second defendant to have any liability.

The trial judge was therefore correct to refuse the second defendant’s motion, and the appeal was dismissed.

  • by Rachel Killean for Irish Legal News
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