An offer to pay compensation without unequivocal admission of liability was not enough to pay Inquest Costs
This article relates to the case of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service v. Susan Ann Veevers  EWHC 2550 where an offer to pay compensation without unequivocal admission of liability was not enough to cover Inquest Costs.
Background of the Case
The Claimant’s son had been a firefighter for the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service for many years. Unfortunately, Stephen Hunt was killed in tragic circumstances in the course of his employment and died of hypoxia and heat exhaustion. This was a pleaded cases against the Appellant in that it failed to take reasonable care in ensuring his use of breathing apparatus and full personal protective equipment did not exceed the maximum time of 20 minutes and that he was not adequately supervised for that time.
Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service admitted liability within proceedings, together with an agreement to pay ‘reasonable’ costs. However, whilst the Appellant admitted liability and agreed to pay reasonable costs, an issue arose over whether the Respondent was entitled to recover the costs of the Inquest, in this instance a substantial sum of £141,000.00.
However, upon the assessment of these costs, the Defendant challenged the Claimant’s entitlement to the substantial costs of the Inquest into the deceased’s death. Those acting for the fire service, argued that the costs of preparing for and attending the Inquest were not properly recoverable as being incidental to the claim for damages, referring to at one point communications between the parties. The Respondent contended that these comments were ambiguous as to render preparation for and attendance at the Inquest both a cost of and incidental to the civil claim arising from Mr Hunt’s death and, in principle, reasonable and proportionate.
In the first instance, the Regional Costs Judge Deputy District Judge Harris held that the costs associated with Inquest attendance were in principle recoverable, subject to the Detailed Assessment of those costs. However this decision was then appealed.
The Appellants position started with an acknowledgement that this is a tragic case and pointed out that;
“following a death, an Inquest may take place when liability enquiries are at an early stage and, as here, the prospective Claimant is not able to particularise allegations of negligence”.
The prospective Defendant, especially a public body such as the Appellant, may as he put it;
“have no desire to cause any further anguish to the family of the deceased or to wish to put them to the hurdle of establishing breach of duty and causation against that body…In such circumstances, a responsible public body, such as (the Appellant), may wish to openly and plainly state that, whatever the investigations turns up, whoever may turn out to be ultimately responsible and whatever the position as between the various parties who may be said to be liable, it intends to fully satisfy any claim for damages the family may make in respect of that claim.”
He described this as a practice to be supported and encouraged. Amongst authorities, the Appellant argued there is general entitlement on the part of a Claimant to the costs of an Inquest merely because it deals with facts related to a civil claim.
The Respondent had noted a change of direction from the Appellant. Before the lower court, it had been noted that from a skeleton argument filed for that hearing, the Appellant argued that all of the costs relating to preparation for and attendance at the Inquest ought to be disallowed save any that preceded the Appellant’s (alleged) admission. However, a change of stance of its Grounds of Appeal contended for;
“the costs relating to preparation for and attendance at the inquest are not recoverable in general save in so far as they are reasonable and proportionate costs incurred prior to the sending of the letters and/or are established to be properly of and incidental to and reasonable and proportionate in relation to issues of the quantum of the civil claim.”
Clearly the Court needed to consider the recoverability of Inquest costs differently to the basis of the lower court.
HHJ Pearce noted in his Judgment that the Inquest Costs were recoverable if they were incidental to the claim but the issue was whether the Defendant had shown their willingness to settle the matter or even admitted the claim. He further remarked that;
“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.”
In conclusion, HHJ Pearce had seen ‘no error’ in the Judgment of DJ Harris and further confirmed he;
“carried out a balancing exercise on the facts of the case and reached a conclusion that lay well within the proper ambit of the exercise of his evaluation of the facts”.
He later decided the costs of preparing for and attending the Inquest are costs “of and incidental” to the instant claim and are in principle reasonable and proportionate is a conclusion that he was entitled to reach, and the appeal was dismissed.
What can be learned from this Judgment is that Defendants should be aware that where an Inquest follows an accident, the costs of attending the Inquest will be recoverable, unless there was a clear admission of breach of duty or of liability. Although the Defendants argued that they had offered to pay compensation and without any admission of liability, the Judge in this case argued that this did not carry the same weight as a full admission.
In principle, any such Inquest costs would also remain a matter of assessment when dealing with reasonableness and proportionality of the costs.
PIC are able to assist with any queries in relation to recovery of Inquest Costs. Contact us today click here.
Jason Green – Legal Costs Negotiator