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Judge refuses to strike out negligence claim brought against public bodies by man who killed three elderly men

The police, health services and Devon County Council have failed to have a claim of common law negligence struck out for illegality brought by a man detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 after killing three men.

In Lewis-Ranwell v G4S Health Services (UK) Ltd & Ors [2022] EWHC 1213 (QB) Mr Justice Garnham ruled that since Alexander Lewis-Ranwell had been acquitted of murder by reason of insanity he had not known that what he doing was unlawful when he killed the three.

The claim is being brought in the High Court by Lewis-Ranwell against Devon County Council, Alexander G4S Health Services (UK), the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police and Devon Partnership NHS Trust.

He alleged all four were negligent in their treatment of him and acted in breach of his rights under Articles 3 and 8 of the ECHR and so sought damages for personal injury, loss of liberty, loss of reputation and loss of dignity and indemnity in respect of any claim brought against him as a consequence of his violence towards others.

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Three defendants applied for an order striking out the claim on the grounds of illegality.

By the start of the hearing they had conceded that their application could only be pursued in respect of the common law negligence claims, not in respect to the Human Rights Act claims.

The judge said he had to decide whether the Particulars of Claim disclosed any reasonable grounds for bringing the negligence action against the defendants.

Garnham J noted the trial jury found Mr Lewis-Ranwell - who is now detained in Broadmoor - not guilty by reason of insanity on the basis that, although he was labouring under a defect of reason, he knew the nature and quality of his actions when he killed the three men but, critically, he did not know that what he was doing was unlawful.

He said: “The defendants can show that the death of the three men was the result of deliberate acts of the claimant.

“But it is not sufficient to exclude liability that the immediate cause of the damage was the deliberate act of the claimant. The defendants must point to a turpidinous act, an act of knowing wrongfulness. That means they must show that the claimant was guilty of criminal or quasi criminal acts, acts that engage the public interest. They have failed to do so.”

Garnham J went on to explain: “Promoting legal consistency and avoiding legal incoherence are underlying objectives of the illegality policy. There would be legal incoherence between the criminal law and the law of tort if a claimant could found a claim on his own criminal or quasi-criminal act.

“But there is nothing incoherent in permitting a claim founded on a third party's negligence if that negligence was the substantial cause of injury or loss, and the claimant's insanity meant no blameworthiness attached to him, as is the case here.

“It may well be the case that claims by the three victims or their families could not succeed against the defendants in the present case, but they might succeed against the claimant. It would not be incoherent for tort law to regard the claimant as responsible for his actions whilst criminal law provides a defence founded on his insanity; the criminal law demands more of the state before penal sanctions are applied, than the civil law does before awarding damages.”

The judge said it had been suggested there was an obvious deterrent effect in having a clear rule that killing a person never results in compensation.

“I see no such deterrent,” he said. “The conduct of a person in respect of whom insanity is proven is unlikely in the extreme to be affected by such a principle. Nor do I regard it as realistic that a court would allow the possibility of a claim for damages to impact their decision-making when considering whether to deprive an individual of their liberty on mental health grounds.”

He also rejected the idea that this claim would be highly likely to offend the public were Mr Lewis-Ranwell compensated out of public funds and that public confidence was likely to be shaken by the ‘obvious injustice’ of the claimant receiving damages for the killings, whilst the victims and their families would receive nothing.

“The origin of the test whether an outcome would be offensive to public notions of the fair distribution of resources is the speech of Lord Hoffman in Gray,” Garnham J said.

“However, what he regarded as potentially offensive was that a claimant should be compensated for the consequences of his own criminal conduct, and the claimant here has been found not guilty of any criminal conduct.”

Mark Smulian

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