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Judge rejects notion that county court rulings are ‘rough and ready’

By John Hyde >>

(4 July 2023)

High Court judge has ordered a retrial on a hotly-disputed personal injury claim after the decision was handed down immediately after submissions.

In Merlin Entertainments PLC v Idziak, Mr Justice Jacobs said the case had required a ‘period of reflection’ to understand the closing arguments that had been heard. Instead, the unnamed recorder, sitting at Cambridge County Court, had given an ex tempore judgment which was ‘challenging and ambitious’ and for which she was not prepared.

Responding to the appeal, the claimant’s representatives submitted that justice in the county court ‘can be a bit rough and ready’, arguing against a retrial even if there had been a flaw in the way in which the recorder expressed herself.

This received short shrift from the judge, who said: ‘The role of the courts, including on an appeal, is to apply the law and do justice as between the parties.’

Claimant Emilia Idziak had made a personal injury claim against Merlin Entertainments after visiting one of its theme parks, Chessington World of Adventures, in 2016. She alleged that she sustained injuries to her back, neck, wrist, arm and fingers from a rollercoaster called Dragon’s Fury. The ride had accelerated before it came to a sudden halt and Idziak’s carriage continued to spin for some minutes while it was stuck at the top. She had to call for help and wait to be rescued. 

Merlin admitted that the ride experienced  ‘car overspeed’ on the day in question but denied that this posed a risk of injury. Everything was done that was reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of users, it said. 

The county court was allocated a two-day hearing in 2022. The case was finished before lunch on the second day as the judge gave the ex tempore ruling and made decisions on special damages, sometimes without reasons. Finding with ‘no hesitation’ that the ride had been megligently maintained, she awarded the claimant £18,000 for general damages.

On appeal, Merlin said the recorder had failed to deal with its central arguments and did not give adequate reasons on breach of duty. The appeal judge agreed, saying it was not possible to discern the basis for rejecting Merlin’s case. He described the recorder’s judgment as ‘not coherent’.

There was nothing wrong in principle with an ex tempore judgment, Jacobs said, but this was not a straightforward case that could be decided instantly. ‘It is also apparent that the recorder was not well-prepared for the judgment on which she embarked,’ added the judge, who said there had been ‘significant problems’ with the decision on liability issues.

The judge suggested Merlin had a ‘strong case’ on quantum issues, pointing out the award was ’considerably in excess’ of the Judicial College guidelines and included sums for psychiatric injury where no evidence of this was put before the court.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)