Defining “disease” claims
The dispute as to whether noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) claims are “disease” claims for the purposes of the fixed success fee regime stems from the complete failure to define “disease” in the Civil Procedure Rules. What is less obvious is whether this was a careless oversight or a deliberate decision.
Males J when faced with the issue of determining whether a certain condition was a disease, in the case of Patterson v Ministry of Defence  EWHC 2767, held:
“Notwithstanding the objective of CPR 45 to provide a clear and certain test for the award of success fees, inevitably questions may arise as to whether particular conditions are to be characterised as ‘diseases’. When that occurs, and when the answer is not obvious, there is in my judgment no single test or definition which can be applied. In circumstances where the Rule itself provides no definition of ‘disease’, and where the dictionaries do not assist, it would not be practicable or sensible for the court to attempt to supply its own definition.”
Phillips J, in the recent case of Dalton v British Telecommunications plc, recognising he was taking the opposite approach to Males J, attempted to define disease:
“In my judgment consideration of the legislative history in this case strongly indicates that Parliament intended the term ‘disease’ in sections IV and V of CPR 45 to include any illness (whether physical or physiological), disorder, ailment, affliction, complaint, malady or derangement other than a physical or physiological injury solely caused by an accident or other similar single event. The provisions of section IV are therefore restricted to injuries caused by accidents (or other single events), preserving the long-established distinction.”
I take this to mean that under Phillips J’s definition:
- Symptoms caused by a single accident or event = injury
- Symptoms caused by more than one accident or event = disease
This would mean that if I bang my thumb with a hammer, I have suffered an injury. If I bang it a second time I am suffering from a disease.
With respect, that is nonsense.
Therein lies the difficulty with trying to provide a definition for disease. This is, in part, the very issue that arises in most NIHL claims. If my hearing is damaged as a result of an explosion in a factory, that appears to be clearly an injury. If my hearing is damaged as a result of a single acoustic shock caused by defective electrical equipment, that would also appear to be an injury I have suffered. Does it really become a disease if the hearing loss follows a number of minor acoustic shocks or exposure to a high level of noise over a prolonged period?
The rule makers may well have made a conscious decision not to define “disease” recognising the difficulties of the process.
However, if it has been intended that NIHL claims would fall within this category, it would surely have been preferable if Category C claims had been defined something along the following lines:
“‘Type C claim’ means a claim relating to a disease not falling within either type A or type B, including noise induced hearing loss claims”
That would have still left scope for some argument over more obscure conditions, such as in Patterson, but would have left the situation clear for most claims.