Hillsborough ruling opens wounds

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Yesterday's ruling reopened all the old wounds among the bereaved families of fans who lost their lives in what Lord Justice Taylor described in his official report as "truly gruesome" carnage.

As with other disasters such as Zeebrugge, Bradford and King's Cross, victims' families can claim for loss of earnings if the deceased was a bread- winner, or for the statutory bereavement allowance, formerly pounds 3,500 but now pounds 7,500, for the loss of a child under 18.

But the House of Lords has ruled out compensation for the psychological injury suffered by numbers of relatives who watched the tragedy unfold on television or who reached the ground or the mortuary some hours later.

Psychiatric injuries following disasters are typically post- traumatic stress disorder - which does not, contrary to the "men of steel" assertion, bear any relationship to a person's psychological make-up or training - and depression. Whether compensation can be claimed depends on the "proximity" of claimants.

They must be in close relationship to the victim, close in terms of time and distance to the disaster and close in terms of means of communication.

Lord Justice Henry said: "I am aware that many people regard it as fundamentally unjust that the police should recover damages for post-traumatic stress disorder sustained on that terrible day, while some of the relatives have failed." But the court had to decide the case on the different principles that applied to the officers.

The implication is that it is for the law on relatives to be brought into line, rather than justifiable claims by officers being ruled out. The Law Commission, the official law-reform body, has been reviewing the law and and a final report is awaited. Relatives struggled equally with yesterday's ruling that professional "rescuers" are not excluded from the protection of the law merely because rescuing forms part of their normal job.

Trevor Hicks, chairman of the Hillsborough Families' Support Group, who lost two daughters in the tragedy, suggested: "This decision opens the floodgates for everybody in a uniform being a victim - a fireman, an ambulance man, even a soldier [could] jump on the bandwagon and claim massive compensation". Mr Hicks, who was at Hillsborough on the fateful day, said many fans had also helped carry bodies and give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

His prediction will not be borne out as the law now stands. Lord Justice Rose said: "The distinction is not due to any preference being given by the courts to policemen over laymen. It exists because the court has long recognised a duty of care to guard employees and rescuers against all kind of injury, whereas, in deciding whether any duty of care exists towards [other] plaintiffs, the courts have in recent years imposed specific criteria in relation to claims for psychiatric injury." Abolishing such a distinction is unlikely to be something the judges would feel comfortable about and would ultimately be for Parliament to decide.

Fears of opening floodgates are traditionally raised whenever courts make rulings that appear to extend the categories of compensation claimants. In practice, the floodgates tend not to open very far, while the rulings tend to put pressure on potential defendants to tighten up their act.