Former soldier loses appeal over Stardust trauma

Peter McGarry alleged he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after helping to retrieve bodies from fire

Aftermath of the Stardust fire. Photograph: Tom Lawlor/The Irish Times

Aftermath of the Stardust fire. Photograph: Tom Lawlor/The Irish Times

 

A former soldier who sued over post-traumatic stress disorder allegedly suffered from seeing bodies of some of the 48 victims of the 1981 Stardust fire disaster has lost his Supreme Court appeal against the dismissal of his action.

Peter McGarry was a soldier in his twenties when assigned from Cathal Brugha barracks to help retrieve bodies from the fire which broke out at the Stardust nightclub in Artane during a St Valentine’s disco on February 14th, 1981.

In proceedings initiated in 1995 against the Defence Forces and State, he sued over post-traumatic stress disorder allegedly suffered after helping place disfigured remains of young victims in an army tent set up as a make-shift morgue alongside the City Morgue.

The defendants successfully applied to the High Court in 2010 to halt his case against them over delays in initiating and advancing it. A three judge Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed the appeal by Mr McGarry, now aged 62, against that decision.

Mr Justice John MacMenamin, giving the court’s judgment, said it had some sympathy for Mr McGarry and welcomed that costs were not being pursued against him.

Mr McGarry had claimed immediately after his experience on the night of the Stardust fire, he had difficulty sleeping and suffered flashbacks.

He went to an army doctor who gave him Valium, excused him from duty for a week and referred him to an army psychiatrist who diagnosed reactive depression.

He claimed he was not offered any counselling. Mr Justice MacMenamin said Mr McGarry was also described in psychiatric reports as involved in a serious fracas involving army recruits, and perhaps civilians, while on border duty.

Mr McGarry believed that incident happened in 1981 after the Stardust but army records suggested it was in 1979. He left the army in 1981 and worked as a taxi driver for a few years but later sold his taxi plate and spent the money on drink and drugs, the judge said.

He was then married with two children but the marriage broke up. He claimed his life was “in turmoil” between 1981 and 1995 when, after a second suicide attempt, he was sent for counselling and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder which, he was told, related to the Stardust.

He later received a number of criminal convictions, including one over an incident where he hijacked a taxi with a knife.

In 1996, he instructed a solicitor to initiate the legal proceedings. After his release from prison in 1999, he resumed work as a hackney driver for a number of years.

The Supreme Court said there was little information concerning his life from 2000 but it was clear his medical and psychiatric condition had stabilised by 2003 and, from 2007, he was living in Liverpool with his new partner.

It was difficult to see how his psychiatric condition could account for delays from 2003 in advancing his case, Mr Justice MacMenamin said.

Mr McGarry is now unemployed, receiving disability allowance and suffering from other medical conditions not relevant to this case, the judge noted. While factors surrounding his life evoked sympathy, the issue for the court was whether the case could lawfully proceed due to the delays.

Mr McGarry was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in May 1995 and his case was initiated in October 1996, he noted. A statement of claim was delivered in October 1998 followed by notices of intention to proceed in 1999 and 2005.

A notice of trial was served in May 2009 after which the defendants applied to halt the case.

The serious delays had not been explained and were “inordinate and inexcusable”, the judge said.

The delays had prejudiced the defendants’ right to a fair trial due to factors including the deaths of army and medical witnesses. Balancing all those factors, the balance of justice lay in dismissing the case, the court ruled.