Rees v Darlington Memorial Hospital NHS Trust [2003] UKHL 52

Negligence – disabled mother – cost of raising child – damages

 

Overturning a decision of the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords held that a disabled mother who gave birth to a healthy child after a negligently-performed sterilisation operation was not entitled to recover the extra costs of child care occasioned by her disability.

 

R’s severe visual disability had led her to seek sterilisation on the basis that she could not discharge ordinary maternal duties. She had communicated her concerns to the consultant who performed the operation. The Court of Appeal, by a majority, concluded, that while R was precluded from recovering the costs of bringing up a healthy child, she could recover the extra costs attributable to her disability.

 

Four out of the seven Law Lords disagreed with the Court of Appeal. They held that the reasoning behind the legal policy that fairness and reasonableness did not require that the damages payable by a negligent doctor should extend as far as to meet the cost of bringing up a healthy child was an unwillingness to regard a child, even if unwanted, as solely a financial liability; that a recognition that the rewards of parenthood, even if involuntary, could not be quantified and a sense that to award potentially very large sums of damages to the parents of a healthy, normal child against a National Health Service always in need of funds to meet pressing demands would rightly offend the community’s sense of how public resources should be allocated. R’s visual disability was not sufficient to create an exception to that general policy. However, fairness and reasonableness meant there should be a conventional sum awarded to the parents by way of general damages, not for the birth of the child, but for the denial of an important aspect of their personal autonomy, the right to limit the size of their family. The parents, particularly even today the mother, had been denied through the negligence of another the opportunity to live her life as she wished and planned. Accordingly in all such cases there should be a conventional award in the sum of £15,000 to mark the injury and loss.

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