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Mental Illness and Personal Injury - Court of Appeal Test Case

In a landmark case, a man who risked his life when his uncle set himself alight whilst in the grip of 'florid paranoid schizophrenia' has won the right to compensation for the severe burns and trauma he suffered.

The nephew had courageously tried to rescue his uncle from self-immolation after he had called on him at his flat unannounced. The uncle had gone out to his car to fetch a magazine and returned with a can of petrol and a lighter. The deranged man poured petrol over himself in the kitchen. When his nephew tried to grab the lighter, he was splashed with petrol. In the ensuing struggle, both men fell to the floor and, as the nephew tried to drag his uncle outside, the latter flicked the lighter. The uncle died at the scene and his nephew, who was caught in the fireball, only survived by leaping from a balcony.

The nephew claimed damages from his uncle's household insurers. However, the judge in the lower court dismissed his claim on the basis that his uncle, who had a history of mental illness, was driven by his delusions and was not a conscious agent when he sparked the blaze.

Whilst he praised the nephew's selflessness, the judge found that his uncle was not in control of his actions but was acting under an irresistible impulse. He lacked the capacity to make informed and reasoned judgments and was thus at the time incapable of being negligent.

In overturning that decision, the Court of Appeal noted that the uncle was not a child. Although his actions were not intended, malicious or reckless, they were directed by his deranged mind and they had caused his nephew's injuries. In those circumstances, he was in breach of his duty to take reasonable care not to injure his nephew.

The Court observed that the uncle's liability could be viewed in law as 'the price for being able to move freely within society despite his schizophrenia'. The amount of the nephew's damages award has yet to be assessed but is likely to be a substantial sum given the extent of his burns and psychiatric injuries.

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