Where a person dies as a result of the wrongful act of another, in certain circumstances an action can be pursued against that wrongdoer. This type of action is known as a “Fatal Injury Action” and has a statutory basis in Part IV of the Civil Liability Act, 1961.
Only one action may be brought against the wrongdoer in respect of the death and it must be brought on behalf of all of the deceased’s dependants. The action may be brought by the personal representative of the deceased, or, if at the expiration of six months from the death there is no personal representative or no action has been brought by the personal representative, by all or any of the dependants.
To come within the definition of a “dependant”, a person must have suffered financial loss or mental distress as a result of the deceased’s death and be related to the deceased in a manner which is defined in the Act.
Where a coroner is informed that the body of a deceased person is lying within his district, it shall be the duty of the coroner under law to hold an inquest in relation to the death of that person if he is of opinion that the death may have occurred in a violent or unnatural manner, or suddenly and from unknown causes.
Most people would consider that any court process, especially one concerning a death in suspicious circumstances, would be adversarial. However, an Inquest distinguishes itself from other Court processes in that the Coroner cannot consider or attribute criminal or civil liability, or indeed exonerate any party. The purpose of the inquest is to establish the facts surrounding the death and to place those facts on the public record.
The Coroner will make findings on the identification of the deceased, the date and place of death, and the cause of death. The range of verdicts open to a coroner or jury include accidental death, misadventure, suicide, open verdict, natural causes (if so found at inquest), and in certain circumstances, unlawful killing. The family will be informed of the date and place of the Inquest and the Coroner will decide on any witnesses that need to be called. In certain circumstances, if the family have suspicions over the death of the deceased and the Coroner has not yet called for an Inquest, they can write to him setting out the reasons as to why an Inquest should be held and upon further investigation, he may accede to that request.
We are regularly instructed to represent bereaved families at Inquests following the death of a loved one. There is no legal requirement for anyone to have such representation but if the deceased’s family has concerns over the care received, we endeavour to explore these issues to the best of our abilities within the constraints of the Inquest process. Whilst no allegations concerning liability can be made, crucial information can be obtained nonetheless. If any family is contemplating the engagement of our services for such an Inquest, we would always encourage early instruction so that sufficient time is allowed to obtain witness statements and the opinion of medical experts concerning any pertinent points.
Some people are concerned about the cost of engaging such representation referred to above at an Inquest. In that respect, the Judgment of O’Neill J. in the High Court case of Courtney V Our Lady‘s Hospital Limited T/A Our Lady’s Hospital Crumlin, Murray, and Walsh [2008/1225P] has been helpful. In circumstances where the death has been shown to be due to the wrongful act of another, it is possible in the majority of cases to recover the cost of legal representation at an Inquest in the subsequent civil case.
Recent Cases of Note:
*In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement.