Court upholds finding deceased driver’s estate liable for woman’s trauma

Lisa Sheehan awarded €87,000 over stress from witnessing ‘horror’ aftermath of crash

The Court of Appeal (CoA) has upheld a decision in favour of a woman who suffered post-traumatic stress after she saw the partially decapitated body of a motorist who had just crashed head-on with a bus.

Lisa Sheehan (37), a married mother-of-two from Banteer in north Cork, was awarded €87,000 in 2020 by the High Court for the stress she suffered after she saw what the CoA described as "scenes of horror" following the crash on the evening of January 28th, 2017, near Mallow in Cork.

The driver whose car hit the Bus Éireann coach was John O'Connor (21) from Lismire, Newmarket in Cork. He was a trackwork rider and promising point-to-point jockey.

Ms Sheehan sued Mr O’Connor’s insurer FBD, which had a nominated representative for his estate as a defendant. She also sued Bus Éireann but proceedings against it were later discontinued.

The High Court heard that on the evening of the incident, Ms Sheehan was driving home from work in Cork city and was travelling in the same direction as Mr O’Connor, some short distance behind him.

She did not see the collision with the bus occur but her car was struck by flying debris from the impact which caused her to brake to a halt.

She went up to the badly damaged car which hit the bus and saw what initially appeared to be the partially decapitated body of a child but which was in fact the remains of Mr O’Connor who had been propelled into the rear by the force of the impact.

Flashbacks

She managed to call the emergency services on her mobile phone and then searched the surrounding area for other victims who might have been thrown from the car. After the emergency services arrived and she rendered what assistance she could, she went home.

As a result, she suffered nightmares and flashbacks, her condition placed great strain on her relationships and job and she continued to have counselling and medication, the High Court found.

It was argued in the High Court that her psychiatric injuries did not give rise to any cause of action recognised by Irish law and the defendant did not owe her a duty of care.

It was also argued she was merely a secondary victim of the accident and even if she could establish her psychiatric illness was reasonably foreseeable as a result of negligence, she cannot bring herself within a restricted category of such victims as defined by previous case law in the UK.

The High Court's Mr Justice David Keane found that while the law on primary/secondary victims is far from settled in this jurisdiction, he was satisfied that, although nothing turned on that categorisation, Ms Sheehan was a primary victim as her car had been struck by debris from the crash.

She was in the area of risk of foreseeable physical injury and she was a participant in the accident, albeit one on the periphery of it, the judge found.

FBD appealed the ruling. It was not disputed in the appeal that as a result of the events, Ms Sheehan suffered psychiatric injury and the amount of damages awarded was not contested either.

At issue was whether she was owed a duty of care. The defendant argued the High Court fell into error in holding that it did.

Mr Justice Seamus Noonan, in the main judgment on behalf of the three-judge CoA, said he was satisfied the High Court correctly concluded Ms Sheehan was entitled to succeed through the application of well-established case law and legal principles and that a duty of care was owed to her by the deceased, and therefore his estate.

In a separate concurring judgment, Mr Justice Maurice Collins found Ms Sheehan was a primary/immediate victim of the negligent driving of the deceased and, as such, was entitled to recover damages against the estate.

He also said it was not necessary for the CoA to determine whether the issue, relating to being a primary or secondary victim, is part of Irish law.