Bereavement damages awarded under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 will increase from 1 May 2020 to the sum of £15,120.
Losing a loved one is of course a devastatingly difficult thing for anyone to have to go through. Losing someone due to the fault of someone else is unthinkable.
At Boyes Turner, we often take on cases where someone has passed away, either through a personal injury such as a road traffic collision or through medical negligence. We also represent widows and widowers who have lost family members due to asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
No amount of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one or family member, but the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 has tried to compensate a very limited group of people by way of an award called “Bereavement Damages”.
From the beginning of May 2020, this amount will be increased to £15,120. The award, according to the Government, is to signify “a token payment payable to a limited group of people”. When I first started representing claimants who had suffered an asbestos related injury, this figure was set at just £10,000. Prior to 2002, it was £7,500. It was increased to £11,800 in 2008 and £12,980 in 2013.
Who can claim for bereavement damages?
Whilst the amount itself for bereavement damages for the loss of a loved one seems far too low, it is also difficult to explain to those grieving that there is a very limited group of people who can claim bereavement damages under the relevant section of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976.
The first group who can claim the £15,120 are the spouse or civil partner of the deceased. This does not strictly therefore extend to “common law spouses”, that is, people who were living together but who have not married. A partner can, for example, have a dependency claim for loss of income and services on a loved one if they have been living with them for longer than two years. However, strictly speaking, this relationship would not qualify someone for the bereavement damages (section 3(1) of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976).
The only other group of people who are able to claim bereavement damages are parents of an unmarried child under the age of 18. If the child was legitimate (that is born to married parents), then the amount is paid to both parents (this needs to be divided equally). If a child was illegitimate (born outside of a marriage), then the bereavement damages are paid to the mother.
There is therefore an extremely limited group of people that are eligible for bereavement damages. It is extended to civil partners, but not for a child losing a parent, not for common law partners and no other relationship qualifies, regardless of the closeness of it.
I can think of many examples of phone calls that we have taken over the years from people who have lost loved ones tragically in, for example, road traffic collisions.
The mother of a motorcyclist contacted me last year. Her son tragically passed away at the scene of an accident when he was hit by a car that was overtaking him.
The driver was charged with death by careless driving so there was no question that his death was caused by the negligence of another person. He was 25 years old, with no partner or children.
It is truly heartbreaking to explain to a mother that no compensation will be paid to the family for the loss of his life itself. The only compensation that could be paid in his case was the cost to cover the funeral and associated expenses. This hardly seems right.
Under a strict interpretation of the law, there could be twins that were born either side of midnight so their dates of birth are recorded on different days. If those twins were negligently killed on the eldest twin’s 18th birthday, the parents would only be entitled to bereavement damages for the younger one who would be under 18. How can that be right? The line, of course, has to be drawn somewhere, but it is often very difficult to explain to clients that they will not qualify for bereavement damages under the Fatal Accidents Act.
As mentioned, the category of people who can make a dependency claim is much wider than that of bereavement damages.
It includes of course children of the deceased, but also in the case of any civil partnership where children are treated by the deceased as a child of the family. It also includes nephews, nieces, uncles, (provided there is a valid dependency) as well as grandparents.
It is a rather unusual list, because it includes not just spouses, but also former spouses cousins, children of cousins and great grandparents. It does include step-children, but it excludes brothers and sisters-in-law as well as parents-in-law. Adopted and foster children are also not specifically included in this group of people that can qualify.
There was, however, a recent case called Witham v Steve Hill Limited which involved the sad death of a builder who passed away due to the asbestos related cancer, mesothelioma when he was 55 years old.
Neil and his wife had two long term foster children, both of which had special needs. They had planned to adopt the children, but had not taken steps by the time Neil sadly passed away.
Neil’s wife was working as a nurse and Neil stayed at home to be the main carer for the children. After Neil passed away, Neil’s wife gave up her career to look after the children. The question for the court was whether the loss of Sarah’s career was a dependency within the meaning of the Fatal Accidents Act, where the foster children were not recognised “dependants” under the Act.
The Judge in the case found for the family, accepting that it was Neil’s wife’s dependency on Neil for his domestic services and childcare services rather than the children’s loss of services (who would not qualify under the Act). The court was entitled to consider a pecuniary loss suffered by all members of the family even though some of the members of the family might not be “dependants” as defined strictly under the Act.