28 October, 2020
The claimant's son was a fire fighter with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue and died at work whilst tackling a fire. Liability was admitted in the proceedings, and damages were finally agreed with the defendant agreeing to also pay the claimant's reasonable costs.
The costs bill submitted included £141 000 out of a total bill of £334 000 for the costs of preparing for and attending the inquest into the death of the claimant's son. The defendant argued that these should not be recoverable as they had admitted culpability and that this admission had been pleaded and relied upon by the claimant. In fact what the defendants had written pre litigation was:
"Our clients are not in a position to consider an admission of liability and we have not undertaken a detailed forensic analysis of the potential for liability in any civil claim on their behalf.
The purpose and objective in making the comments which we make directly below is to attempt to remove any additional stress from the family during and immediately after the inquest.
Our clients are meeting simultaneously with the handing over of this letter to you to inform the family of Stephen Hunt that any claims that will be pursued by you on behalf of their deceased family members will be met in full.……………………….
…………..We write in open correspondence in order to advise that our clients are willing to compensate the estate and dependents of Stephen Hunt pursuant to the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1934 , for any loss which they may prove to be attributable to the incident on 13 July 2013 together with payment of their reasonable costs.
It is not our client's intention to allege contributory negligence or to seek any reduction of damages in this regard. We confirm that our clients will deal with the claims on a full basis."
The letter was written shortly before the inquest was due to take place.
The claimant's stance was that the defendant's position was ambiguous such that their attendance at the inquest was reasonable and proportionate.
As the judge put it, the central issue in the case was "is the recoverability of inquest costs where the prospective defendant has indicated a willingness to settle any claim but has not admitted liability."
Having looked at the authorities the judge said that the law could be summarised as follows:
(a) Inquest costs may be recoverable in so far as reasonable and proportionate, so long as they can properly be said to be incidental to the civil claim;
(b) Such costs will not be recoverable if liability is no longer in issue between the parties, since the costs are simply not incidental to something in issue in the civil claim;
(c) In determining whether liability is in issue, the court must look at all the circumstances of the case, but the central issue is likely to be whether the prospective defendant has admitted liability or otherwise indicated a willingness to satisfy the claim;
(d) Liability will not be in issue if it has been admitted since such an admission is binding unless the court subsequently permits it to be withdrawn pursuant to CPR 14.1A .
(e) However, the Costs Judge is entitled to look with care at anything less than an unqualified admission to see whether the prospective defendant's position is one from which it may resile or which leaves matter in issue between the parties.
(f) In particular, if the defendant's position is not one of unqualified admission in circumstances where such an admission could have been made, the Costs Judge may be entitled to find that the failure to make an unqualified admission justified the conclusion that the defendant might exercise its right to resile from the admission and that therefore the costs of the inquest could properly be said to be incidental to the civil claim.
(g) If the costs can be justified upon these principles, the mere fact that there are other reasons why the family of the deceased should wish to be represented at an inquest, most obviously to avoid the inequality of arms between unrepresented family members and a represented public body does not mean that the costs are not recoverable. It is enough that the attendance to secure relevant evidence in relation to matters in issues was a material purpose for the attendance.
In finding that the costs were recoverable the judge made it clear that a statement that is not an admission should not have the same weight as a formal admission. He noted that a defendant can resile from a statement that is not a formal admission which puts the claimant at risk.
Formal admissions need to be made in clear, open and unequivocal terms if inquest costs are to be avoided by defendants/compensators in any subsequent civil proceedings brought by the estate of the deceased. As here, any ambiguity is likely to mean that the costs of attending an inquest may be recoverable, and a simple offer to pay compensation will not be enough.
Each case must be judged on its own facts and merits as to whether an early admission of liability should and could be made prior to any inquest hearing depending on the complexity of the issues. Early engagement with your legal team are important considerations to allow organisations to be in a position to make that informed decision on liability.