Judge defers decision on settlement offer of €4m


A CLEARLY exasperated High Court judge has deferred her decision on a €4 million settlement offer for a severely disabled woman after saying Ireland is still operating an “outdated, unjust and ineffective” system of awarding lump-sum damages in catastrophic injury cases instead of introducing laws allowing phased payments that would ensure their lifelong care costs are met.

Ms Justice Mary Irvine asked yesterday whether it was just that 24-year-old Jennifer Courtney, who has been offered €4 million to settle her action, may run out of money if she lives longer than her estimated life expectancy which forms the basis of that settlement.

“Ask me is that justice,” the judge said. “These are the rules I am asked to operate in.”

She made the remarks when dealing with the case of Ms Courtney, a student who suffered severe brain injuries and needs 24-hour care as a result of being struck by a car on a road in Coolock, Dublin, five years ago.

Through her father Hugh, Ms Courtney, of Westpark Estate, Artane, Dublin, had sued the car driver – Jiao Hong Gang, Dun Saithne Grove, Fleming Lane, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, over the incident at Tonlegee Road, Coolock, on November 17th, 2007.

The court heard the €4 million settlement offer was made on the basis of a 50/50 split in liability in relation to the incident.

Ms Justice Irvine said that while she considered the €4 million settlement a reasonable one, representing half the value of the action, this particular case could not provide a clearer basis to justify periodic payments.

This was a very significant case in terms of Ms Courtney’s welfare, she said, and asked senior counsel Pat O’Connell, for Ms Courtney, to compile a formal opinion on the settlement offer to be considered by the court when the case returns before it on October 26th.

This case highlighted the problems for the courts when trying to do justice for the plaintiffs in catastrophic injury cases, she said.

If Ms Courtney lived longer than estimated by her doctors, she would run out of money within months of expiry of the date of her estimated life expectancy, the judge said.

The annual cost of her care was €170,000 and if the life-expectancy estimate was wrong, that could be catastrophic for Ms Courtney, the judge said.

In such cases, it would be “a miracle” if life expectancy was correctly assessed, she added. If there was an overestimation of life expectancy, the injured person’s family could also have an unexpected windfall.

The judge commiserated with Mr Courtney in relation to his daughter’s very serious accident and said there was a problem in all cases involving people who had suffered catastrophic injuries where the court was trying to ensure lifelong care provision for them.

She said a High Court working group had recommended 3½ years ago that legislation be introduced to provide for periodic payments in such cases.

“We are very disappointed we have not got that legislation and Jennifer is not going to get the benefit of it,” she said.

Earlier, Mr O’Connell said Ms Courtney was crossing the road when she was struck by a car. It was claimed the driver was driving at speed and one of the vehicle’s lights was defective, he said.

In a reconstruction of the incident and on foot of calculations by experts, it was considered the defendant was driving within the speed limit. The Garda report of the incident referred to a “dart- out” incident, he added.

Ms Courtney was in a coma for a prolonged period after the incident, but is now alert.

The court was told she needs 24-hour care, is unable to work and will require long-term care in a specialist care environment.