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A tale of two legal systems

09 November 2009

Nick Cox has been taking a wry look at a string of court decisions filtering across from the US that highlight the gulf between our respective approaches to compensation.

In one case Terence Dickinson was awarded $500,000 for mental anguish after being trapped in a garage for eight days, surviving on a box of dog biscuits and a case of Pepsi. In another, Mrs Grazinski was awarded $1.75 million after her Winnebago left the highway unexpectedly, crashed and overturned.

These large damages awards reflect the ‘blame and shame’ culture that exists in the US, but the most startling thing about them is that both ‘victims’ were almost entirely the authors of their own misfortunes. The reports do not show whether the awards were reduced to reflect that, but one suspects not, given the facts.

Mr Dickinson was actually trying—via the garage—to exit a house that he had just burgled. Because the connecting door locked automatically and he couldn’t open the garage door itself, he was trapped for eight days. Some might take the view that any ‘mental anguish’ suffered was entirely self-inflicted.

Contrast his case with the sole company director in Stone and Rolls Limited (in liquidation) v Moore Stephens who tried to sue his auditors for failing to detect his fraudulent activities. The Lords decided that, where a single director was the company, the maxim must apply that no party may bring an action in reliance on their on misdeeds. Mr S could not therefore bring an action at all.

As for Mrs Merv Grazinski, her case is in cruel contrast to the tragic facts of Marsden v Bourne Leisure, where a two-year old boy drowned in a pond at a holiday park in Wales. The family was awarded damages of £25,000 but this was reversed on appeal. The information on potential hazards provided to parents on arrival was clear: the park operator could not be expected to take additional precautions, the court said. It was not necessary to find that the parents were to blame in order for the park operator to escape liability. The court said that accidents happen where young children are concerned, without anyone being at fault.

How Winnebago Industries would have loved a similar dose of common sense in Mrs Grazinski’s case, but alas, they were told by the court that their instruction manuals were deficient. They did not expressly spell out that when the vehicle was set to cruise control at 70 mph, as Mrs Grazinski had done, the driver still needed to remain at the wheel, as Mrs Grazinski had not done, preferring instead to go to the kitchen to make herself a sandwich!

Whatever frustrations exist about the English system, cases like these surely mean that we will never edge too close to what they get up to on the other side of the Atlantic.

Partner Nick Cox specialises in commercial contract disputes and has particular expertise in contentious landlord and tenant work. He is a member of the Property Litigation Association and an ADR Group-accredited mediator.






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