Legal gavel judge

This matter involved the tragic death of the plaintiff’s husband by suicide, some 2 ½ years following his involvement in a motorcycle accident which caused him serious injuries. Following his suicide, action was instituted against the RAF on behalf of his widow, for loss of support arising from her late husband’s suicide.

The critical issue in the case was the causal connection between the injuries sustained by the deceased in the accident, and the suicide. After extensive evidence was led, the trial court found that on a conspectus of the evidence it could not accept that it was clear that the accident had been the “direct or proximate cause” of the deceased’s suicide, and dismissed the widow’s claim. The same court dismissed an application for leave to appeal her judgment, following which a petition was launched to the Supreme Court of Appeal for special leave to appeal. The Supreme Court of Appeal duly granted leave to appeal to the Full Bench of the Western Cape High Court.

After a careful analysis of the lay and expert evidence which had been presented to the trial court – particularly that which related to the historical account of the extent of the deceased’s physical impairment post-injury –  the Full Bench noted that what it had to be satisfied on was whether the plaintiff had established on a preponderance of the probabilities, that the injuries sustained by the deceased in the collision were a sine qua non of his eventual suicide. In this instance, this involved a consideration of two different questions: firstly, whether any factual relation existed between the defendant’s conduct and the harm suffered by the plaintiff, and, secondly, whether or to what extent the defendant should be held legally responsible for the consequences factually induced by his or her conduct. The court went on to unanimously hold that in this instance the critical question was the first one, and that it was trite law that a court of appeal has limited powers to interfere with the findings of fact which a trial court had made, and that such findings will only be disregarded if the recorded evidence shows they are clearly wrong. The court accepted that the deceased had suffered severe bodily injuries due to the collision, which had caused him significant physical impairment, and that the plaintiff’s uncontested evidence was that these injuries had a profound physical, emotional and psychological effect on him. The court highlighted that where the trial court had critically erred, was in holding that the plaintiff had been required to prove that the suicide had been as a result of a diagnosable psychiatric condition, and that this approach had affected the correctness of its judgment in its entirety. Ultimately, the Full Bench held that a full conspectus of the evidence pointed to one direction only, namely that the deceased was depressed due to the serious orthopaedic injuries he had sustained in the accident, resulting in his eventual suicide, and allowed the appeal.

For a copy of the full judgment click here.

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