A €250,000 loss of future earnings award to a woman injured in a traffic accident must be reconsidered, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
In 2018, the High Court awarded €530,860 to Dolores O'Doherty (aged 50), a school secretary from Tycroghan, Enfield, Co Meath, against Anne and Tom Callinan, Drum, Athlone, Co. Westmeath.
It was largely composed of €150,000 for past and future pain/suffering and €250,000 for loss of future earnings as she had been unable to return to work full time as a school secretary and would only be able to do part-time work in the future.
It arose out of an accident on June 14, 2014, when Ms O'Doherty's car was struck from behind in a line of traffic by a vehicle driven by Mr Callinan and owned by Ms Callinan. Liability was admitted and it was dealt with as an assessment of damages case.
Ms O'Doherty's seat was broken in the impact and her vehicle written off as a result of the damage. She sustained neck, back and knee injuries but most significantly an injury to her coccyx bone which subsequently developed into a serious long-term condition known as coccydynia.
She underwent three procedures under anaesthetic in an attempt to alleviate her ongoing pain.
The High Court’s Ms Justice Leonie Reynolds, in her January 2018 award, said it was clear from the evidence that even if Ms O’Doherty’s work environment was adapted to suit her needs, it was unlikely she would be in a position to resume work on a full-time basis.
The defendants appealed solely in relation to the loss of future earnings element of the award.
It was argued Ms O'Doherty's job was still open, given she had repeatedly expressed a desire to return to work. In the likely event that she does return, working on a part-time basis until retirement at 68, the defendants said her future loss of earnings were between €118,000 and €135,000, depending on factors including the pay rate applied.
Among the errors of the High Court were also that insufficient weight was given to the evidence that Ms O'Doherty is a particularly skilled, valuable, adaptable, competent and hard-working employee, the defendants' side argued.
Ms O'Doherty's lawyers argued the High Court had not erred. They refuted the defendants' contention the High Court found she was likely to return to work at the school and argued that the court effectively ruled out a return. Her own GP had said her pain would not resolve and it was most unlikely she would return.
It was not plausible she could return to her pre-accident employment at the school, it was argued.
Today, Ms Justice Una Ní Raifeartaigh, on behalf of the three-judge Court of Appeal said, unfortunately, the High Court judge did not make it clear whether she was finding Ms O'Doherty would, on the balance of probabilities, be able to return to work at the school or not.
The evidence on this issue was not clear-cut and a decision on this issue was required to be reached and the basis for that conclusion identified, she said.
The matter would have to go back to the High Court for reconsideration, she said.
The Court of Appeal could not replace the award with its own figure because there would be “a large element of guesswork” as to how the trial judge arrived at the figure of €250,000, she said.