Paramount v Rix [2021] EWCA Civ 1172

This post was written by Harry Steinberg QC.

Yesterday morning, little more than a month after the hearing, the Court of Appeal handed down judgment in Paramount Shopfitting Company Ltd v Rix [2021] EWCA Civ 1172. It is the latest in a series of decisions about how the courts should assess loss of income where mesothelioma hits a family business.

Facts

Mr Rix contracted mesothelioma as a result of the defendant’s negligence and died aged 60. He had been the founder and driving force of a successful joinery business. The judge, Cavanagh J, described him as a “… remarkably talented and dedicated businessman.” He and his wife held 80% of the shares between them and their two sons held the remaining 20%. The business consistently generated a gross annual profit of more than £300,000, but they retained most of the profit within the business to enhance its value. 

The family business continued to thrive after Mr Rix’s death and generated greater profits in the subsequent years

Mrs Rix claimed as his widow and dependant. She contended that her loss of financial dependency under s.3 of the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 was her share of the annual income to which they would jointly have been entitled had Mr Rix lived (basis 1). Alternatively, she claimed by reference to replacing the cost of his services to the business (basis 2). The defendant contended that there was no loss since the family business had been more profitable after Mr Rix’s death and she had inherited his shares and retained her own. 

The Judge’s decision 

The trial judge, presented with these alternatives, decided that there was a loss of dependency and held that basis 1 was the appropriate method of calculation. The business was not a ‘money generating beast’ and the income was derived from Mr Rix’s efforts – his skill and acumen – and not from a capital asset. 

Grounds of appeal

The Defendant was permitted to appeal on three grounds. First, the Judge was wrong to assess the loss of dependency by reference to all the profits which accrued to Mr and Mrs Rix without regard to whether those profits survived his death and continued to accrue. Secondly, the Judge was wrong to treat Mrs Rix’s shareholding as if it had belonged to Mr Rix. Finally, the Judge was wrong not to deduct Mrs Rix’s surviving income from her shares in the calculation of the loss. 

On appeal

The Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed all three grounds of appeal.

Nicola Davies LJ, giving the lead judgment, held that the earlier authorities, Wood v Bentall [1992] PIQR 332, Cape vO’Loughlin [2001] EWCA Civ 178 and Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust & Anor v Williams [2008] EWCA Civ 81, did not establish a principle that a business should be treated as a capital asset which will continue to produce a flow of income regardless of the death of the prime mover and driving force. 

On the facts, there was ‘no identifiable element of the profits which was not touched by the management of Mr Rix’. The loss was the income that would have been generated by Mr Rix’s services to the business, irrespective of the fact that the business retained the capital assets. It was therefore logical to treat the whole profit available to Mr and Mrs Rix as earned income and part of the financial dependency. Accordingly, there was no sound objection to basis 1 and the first ground of appeal was dismissed. 

The second ground of the appeal – that the Judge should not have treated Mrs Rix’s share as if it belonged to Mr Rix – was dismissed on the basis that it is established by authority that the Court must look at what the underlying reality of the situation. It appears, curiously, that the defendant relied on Ward v Newall [1998] 1 WLR 1722, which on the face of it seems to be directly contrary to defendant’s argument. 

The final ground of appeal was dismissed on the basis that the finding that the income of Mr and Mrs Rix – whether in the form of salary, dividends or profits – was wholly attributable to Mr Rix’s endeavours and earning capacity. This left no room for any deduction for income that would survive his death. Any such deduction would also contravene the principle that dependency is fixed as at death. 

Discussion

The outcome was a resounding success for the claimant and a decisive statement about how the Courts should treat claims of this type in the future. 

The decision is of considerable general importance. Where the injured party in a mesothelioma case has a fixed or regular income, the assessment of ‘financial dependency’ is essentially basic arithmetic. But, increasingly often, in cases such as Rix and Head v Culver (on remarkably similar facts), the loss is both more substantial and controversial. The central difficulty is how to disentangle that part of the profit which is derived from the residual value of the shares, which may be bound up in the company assets or intangible factors such as the goodwill and the existing customer base. 

The Court of Appeal recognised that, in principle, it is necessary to distinguish between loss of income derived from services and income derived from a capital asset. As Staughton LJ pithily put it in Wood, you cannot claim for the loss of the eggs if you have inherited the goose. 

But that principle, until now at least, has been difficult to apply. 

The Court of Appeal did not opt for the quasi-compromise position represented by basis 2 and the cost of replacing Mr Rix’s services (although, it should be remembered, the defendant rejected this approach too). Instead, the Court of Appeal tackled the question of how to assess this type of loss head on. 

Underhill LJ identified the problem with precision: 

“The real question is how that distinction works in the case of a small or medium-sized business with substantial assets, where the deceased (typically, but not necessarily, the founder) is not only the owner but the main person whose work and decisions generate the profits and thus the income which he takes out of the business and which the wife enjoys.” (para 76)

In a key passage, at para 60, Nicola Davies LJ answered the question as follows: 

“Income is only derived from capital if it is identifiable as having been received without the labour and services of the deceased. In short, it is passive.”

Underhill LJ found the answer lay in the old decision of Staughton LJ in Wood in which Staughton LJ held that, in assessing the loss in this situation, the court had to decide how much of the deceased’s was ‘derived solely from capital’. Applying this reasoning, Underhill LJ held

“I take that to mean that it is irrelevant that the capital has in one sense made the earning of the income possible.  The income is only “derived from capital” if it is identifiable as having been received without the husband’s services – in short, if it is passive.”   

Nicola Davies LJ, at para 54(iv), used the same language in articulating the core principles. 

The Court of Appeal has seemingly come up with a practical solution which is to give the injured party, rather than the tortfeasor, the benefit of the doubt. Valuable cases are rarely decided by the burden of proof, but if the only income that is it be deducted is that which is ‘derived solely from the capital’ then it rests with the defendant to prove that which falls into this category. 

This is consistent with (a) the Court of Appeal’s recognition that damages under the fatal accidents act may be greater than would be justified on a strict view of the dependants’ loss (para 54vi) and (b) the fairwind principle which gives the benefit of the doubt to the injured party where the tort makes the future uncertain. 

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