Accidents and injury caused by accidents and injury are traumatic and can be life changing. However our legal system will usually ensure that financial compensation by way of damages is recoverable by someone injured in an accident that was not their fault. Notwithstanding this, however, the consequences of injuries suffered can result in the breakdown of a marriage and this can lead to other issues and claims relating to the compensation awarded to one of the spouses following an accident. The question will be whether compensation received by one of the parties to a marriage will fall into the matrimonial ‘pot’ and can be claimed as a matrimonial asset by the other spouse. The answer to this will almost certainly be that it can.
The leading authority for this is the case of Wagstaff. In this case, the husband was made paraplegic in a road traffic accident. He was awarded £418,000 in damages and in divorce proceedings was only ordered to pay a small part of this to the wife as a lump sum payment. The wife appealed and the Court of Appeal held that personal injury damages were a financial asset that had to be taken into consideration on divorce. Although the husband’s disability was a major consideration in deciding his entitlement, the amount payable to the wife was increased to redress the financial disparity.
In another case, that of C v C, the husband suffered catastrophic injuries resulting in permanent disability and brain damage. He was awarded a sum in excess of £5 million. Probably as a result of the injuries the marriage floundered and the wife claimed on the husband’s damages award. The court confirmed the principle that personal injury damages were to be taken into account, but by reason of the husband’s extreme needs the wife’s claim was unsuccessful.
Injuries sustained in an accident may rightly or wrongly sound the death knell to a marriage. Divorce and what goes with it may be a further loss to be suffered, and the question will arise of whether compensation for a lost marriage can be claimed. Added to the distress of the injury will be further distress from the loss of a marriage and relationship, together with the financial cost and the inevitable worsening financial position. Can an injury claimant therefore recover losses arising from a divorce that was a consequence of the injury?
The answer will almost certainly be no. The courts have deemed it contrary to public policy to extend into personal injury litigation matters relevant to divorce and family law. Furthermore, the Law Commission in a report have concluded that the law should not be reformed to enable either pecuniary or non-pecuniary damages arising from divorce to be recovered in personal injury claims.
The position of the law was confirmed in the case of Jones, where it was accepted that the marriage had broken down as a consequence of the husband’s personality change following an accident. An additional award for this was refused by the court at the hearing of the personal injury claim. The Court of Appeal held that, in making orders in divorce proceedings, the court was simply exercising its discretion over the parties’ assets and making adjustments to cater for the parties’ needs. These ‘adjustments’ could not be considered a loss incurred by the claimant. There are those who would disagree with this and even if accepted it does not take account of the distress caused by a marriage breakdown to a person who has already had their life disrupted by injuries.