Retired brigadier general settles Army deafness claim


A retired brigadier general, the highest-ranking officer to bring an Army deafness claim, yesterday settled his High Court action for damages. He claimed he suffered from a buzzing in his ear and had to wear hearing aids. The sum agreed was not announced.

Former Brig Gen Walter McNicholas (72), now living in Coleraine Road, Blackheath, London, said his hearing had been adversely and permanently affected by chronic exposure to gunfire.

Mr McNicholas, who was in the Army for 42 years and retired in 1988, alleged his problems arose from the State's negligence and breach of duty.

The State denied the claims and alleged he was guilty of contributory negligence because he failed to wear ear protection provided, or failed to request ear protection. Mr Justice Johnson, who has heard most of the hearing loss cases, said the first Army regulations on sound were issued in 1952. He presumed Mr McNicholas would have been familiar with the code as he rose through the ranks. Mr Justice Johnson said he would want to know why the Army regulations were "systematically ignored in that period". Ms Geraldine Connolly SC, for Mr McNicholas, said the court would have to focus on that.

Mr Justice Johnson asked if Mr McNicholas was going to say he used ear protectors and ensured his men used them. If so, it was the first evidence the court had since these cases had started that anyone used them. Ms Connolly said her client would say there was ear protection available and some wore it and some did not. Mr Justice Johnson asked if Mr McNicholas had made any complaint about the matter while in the Army. Ms Connolly said he never formally complained but he and the other officers thought the ear protectors were inadequate.

Mr McNicholas said he had been exposed to noise from rifles, machine guns and mortars during his career. He had served with the Army in Cyprus, Suez Canal, Syria and Lebanon.

He said cotton wool in the ear was a standard procedure on firing ranges. The problem was, how did one hear orders and when giving orders how could the soldiers hear the orders with cotton wool in their ears, he asked. Unless he packed his ears with cotton wool he could not exclude the noise and it hurt him.

Asked if he had reported this, Mr McNicholas replied: "We didn't live our lives making complaints. We were soldiers."

He first knew of his hearing problem in 1996 when his daughter arranged for an audiogram. Up to then his family and others considered he had been heedless, inattentive and not answering. He had no idea he had ear impairment.