Former Defence Forces mechanic wins appeal over order halting damages claim

Court of Appeal overturns High Court finding over action time limits

In proceedings against the Minister for Defence and the State, Ian Coughlan alleges he was exposed to toxic chemicals used for degreasing aircraft parts. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

In proceedings against the Minister for Defence and the State, Ian Coughlan alleges he was exposed to toxic chemicals used for degreasing aircraft parts. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

A former aircraft mechanic with the Defence Forces has won his appeal against an order halting his damages action over injuries allegedly suffered as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals at work.

The Court of Appeal overturned a High Court finding that Ian Coughlan’s action was brought outside the applicable time limits and thus bound to fail.

The High Court relied on inadmissible evidence in coming to that finding, the three judge Court of Appeal held in its judgment on Wednesday.

The application to halt the case must now be reconsidered in line with the Court of Appeal’s findings.

Giving the judgment, Mr Justice Seamus Noonan said Mr Coughlan, aged in his forties, was employed as an aircraft mechanic between 1994 and 2004 before he retired on an invalidity pension.

In proceedings against the Minister for Defence and the State, he alleges he was exposed to toxic chemicals used for degreasing aircraft parts, was not provided with proper protection against the effects of those and suffered personal injuries.

Among various claims, he alleges he suffered dizziness, skin rashes, nasal irritation, sores, sleep disturbance, chronic fatigue and headaches, skin yellowness and bloody diarrhoea.

Mr Justice Noonan said Mr Coughlan, both during and after his employment with the Defence Forces, attended a large number of doctors about his complaints. Mr Coughlan himself has long believed there was an association between his complaints and his working environment but says he was repeatedly assured by doctors he was wrong about this, the judge noted.

Mr Coughlan says it was only in November 2011, when he got a verbal opinion from a clinical toxico-pathologist, a Professor Howard, that he became aware of a causal link between his symptoms and his employment.

He claimed that was his date of knowledge for his cause of action and, because his proceedings were issued in 2013, they were within the two - year limit stipulated in the Statute of Limitations Act.

The defendants argued his date of knowledge long pre-dated the November 2011 opinion. They said he had seen a toxicologist, a Dr Wood, in London in 2008 and exhibited a January 2009 report by Dr Wood in arguing his claim was statute barred.

Mr Coughlan said in an affidavit Dr Wood was “very much limited” in expressing an opinion as to any causal connection between his employment and his injuries because of a lack of information available to the doctor concerning the chemicals and solvents to which he had been exposed.

Mr Justice Noonan said the High Court relied on Dr Wood’s report to find that Mr Coughlan had, as of January 2009, acknowledged the injury complained of was attributable in whole or in part to alleged negligence and breach of duty by the defendants.

Noting the High Court hearing was on the basis of affidavit evidence only, the judge said it is “relatively unusual” for date of knowledge issues to be determined without oral evidence.

Date of knowledge of any particular plaintiff will have a “significant subjective element” and it was difficult to see how any issue about it could, in the normal way, be resolved without oral evidence.

The judge found an objection by counsel for Mr Coughlan to the admissibility of the Wood report on hearsay grounds was “well-founded”. The Wood report had the same status as a document produced in the course of discovery, it does not prove itself and it was inadmissible as hearsay, he held.

Even if the report was properly admitted and properly proved, fair procedures required its contents should have been put to Mr Coughlan in cross-examination to give him a fair opportunity to deal with it, he also held.

For those reasons, he dismissed the appeal and remitted the matter to the High Court.