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Hamilton v Hertfordshire County Council, High Court, 15 December 2003

5 January 2004
The issues

Withdrawal of liability – admission – mistake of fact.

The facts

The Claimant was employed as a Welfare Assistant at a school for children with physical disabilities. She claimed that she injured her back at the school’s swimming pool when she was called upon by a teacher to help her to carry a 10-year-old boy who was unable to walk.

The accident occurred on the 13th May 1998. Proceedings were not issued until 24th April 2001. The Council had admitted liability through its Insurers on 15th January 2001. On the 1st September 2000, a letter of claim was sent by the Claimant’s Solicitors alleging that the accident had happened when the teacher who had called on the Claimant to help was distracted by another pupil and unexpectedly thrust the boy into the arms of the Claimant, causing her to stagger back and injure her back. Subsequently, a meeting took place between Insurers, the Teacher concerned and the Head Teacher, in which the circumstances of the accident and contemporaneous documents were considered. Those documents suggested three different versions of what had happened to the Claimant. The Claimant’s version of events was not accepted, but Insurers took the view that liability should be admitted in the light of what they thought then was the only way in which the Claimant could have sustained her injury. The Defendants applied to withdraw the admission by an Application dated 15th February 2002 and heard on 7th April 2003 when the Trial of the action was due to take place. By then, witness statements had been provided by the Teacher and the Head Teacher, both of which relied on a version of the accident whereby the Claimant had not lifted the boy at all, but had simply bent down to support him for the time being. The Council’s case was that liability had been admitted because of a mistake of fact on the part of its Insurers. The Judge refused to allow the admission to be withdrawn.

The Defendant appealed to the High Court Judge.

The decision

1. Under CPR 14.1(v) the Court had power to permit an admission to be withdrawn or amended. The three factors relevant to the exercise of that discretion had been identified by Nelson J in Flaviis -v- Pauley, namely:-

(a) Whether the issue to which the admission relates is one on which the party who made the admission had a realistic prospect of success;

(b) Whether the Application to withdraw the admission is made in good faith;

(c) Whether the withdrawal of the admission would prejudice the party in whose favour the admission was made.

2. If the Council’s version of events, namely that the Claimant had been bending down when her back had been injured, was accepted, the Council could well succeed. The Council had a realistic as opposed to a merely fanciful prospect of defending the action.

3. The admission had been a genuine mistake on the part of Insurers.

4. The Claimant would suffer prejudice to the extent that she would suffer disappointment if the issue of liability became a live one again. Since the 15th February 2002, the Claimant had had to live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the Council would be allowed to withdraw its admission. These were relevant factors. However, the balance against the injustice of the Council of not being able to defend the claim, the Court concluded that the Claimant’s prejudice did not outweigh that potential for injustice.

Appeal allowed.

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