Can there be just compensation for victims of violent crime?

We had a reminder this week from Tasmania about the heads of damages available to persons who have suffered personal injury in the case of Cooper v Neubert.

The background details to the plaintiff’s claim can only be described as horrific. She was a passenger in a car driving by a friend of hers. The car was stopped at a red light. Whilst the the car was stationary another car, travelling in the other direction, cut across their path and blocked them.

The driver of the second car got out of his vehicle and walked around the back of the two friends’ car. As he approached the driver’s side window she noticed that he was holding a gun. In a natural reaction, she began to scream and shout.

The driver of the second car shot the plaintiff through the closed car window, injuring the right side of her head and showering her with glass. In a heroic act the plaintiff put her hand over the injury to try and help her friend. The shooter put the barrel of his gun against her hand, whereupon she looked him in the eye and said “stop”.

In a completely cold blooded act the shooter then shot again, shooting through the plaintiff’s hand and into her friend, killing her friend. The plaintiff described feeling immediate pain and when she looked at her hand she described it as “mush”.

The car by this stage had collided with a safety barrier over a creek. When the plaintiff got out of the car (understandably completely panicked) she fell into the creek below. Ultimately, she required surgery on her right hand, which will remain permanently deformed, and has developed serious psychological issues.

The question in this case was one of what damages the plaintiff is entitled to in compensation for the wrong suffered at the hands of the defendant.

As it turns out, the heads of damages were extensive. She was entitled to general law damages in the sum of $175,000. She was also found to be entitled to aggravated damages. These are only rarely awarded, but the Judge in this case said “It is difficult to conceived of a more compelling case for an award of aggravated damages” and awarded the sum of $75,000.

We then move to the more specific damages. Amounts were awards for costs incurred at Medicare, the hospital, psychologist, GP, medication and travel expenses. As the plaintiff was not able to work after her injuries she was also found to be entitled for past economic loss (in the form of lost wages and lost superannuation).

The plaintiff’s injuries were ongoing. She was therefore also found to be entitled to damages for lost future earning capacity (based on the number of years she expected to continue working, including super). She was also found to be entitled to an amount for her future medical expenses.

Finally, and in relation to a matter which is perhaps of the most practical, day to day nature, she was also found to be entitled to payment for past and future attendant care. As a result of her injuries the plaintiff had trouble doing a whole range of normal household and personal tasks of the kind that we all take for granted. For example, help with the household chores, getting dressed and washing.

The total of these amounts comes to $2,312,284.20. That’s a substantial whack of money in almost anyone’s language. It’s important to bear a couple of things in mind though. The amount is compensation for damage actually suffered by the plaintiff – it doesn’t put her in any better position than she was before. Indeed, studies have shown that the compensation awarded in these types of cases is almost always insufficient for future needs.

The other thing to bear in mind is what the plaintiff had to endure to get these damages. I’m sure she would rather give back the money if it brought back her friend and her health. Nevertheless, having gone through these horrific events the law was at least able to compensate her, in so much as it is able to do so with money. That’s the law!