Chapter 7: Civil litigation

Settlement

2.7.17 The disclosed documents suggest that there was debate and argument between SYP and their insurers about their decision to offer a settlement of some civil claims. On 17 November 1989, Chief Constable Peter Wright presented a report to the Police Authority in which he indicated that the claims were to be defended.

2.7.18 On 30 November, however, a press release illustrated a significant shift in position: 'It has been decided by the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire and the South Yorkshire Police Authority, in conjunction with their insurers, Municipal Mutual Insurance, that those bereaved and injured in the tragic events at Hillsborough stadium on 15 April should not have to await the outcome of a further lengthy hearing in 1990 before receiving compensation'.[8] 

2.7.19 Thus, 'the Chief Constable, in conjunction with his insurers, intends to open negotiations with the aim of resolving all bona fide claims against him for compensation arising out of the Hillsborough disaster'.

2.7.20 Other named defendants, SWFC, Eastwood & Partners and SCC, had been 'offered the opportunity of joining in the course of action now taken on behalf of the South Yorkshire Police, but have refused to do so'. The 'Chief Constable and his insurers' intended to 'pursue legal action against those parties to recover moneys paid out to the claimants pursuant to today's offer'.

2.7.21 Within the Force there was an additional rationale:

The civil case was likely to take place in advance of any criminal proceedings against anyone arising out of the events at Hillsborough.  Had this occurred a number of police witnesses, acting on legal advice, would in all probability have declined to give evidence on the grounds of possible self-incrimination. The South Yorkshire Police would therefore have unnecessarily appeared evasive and the civil hearing been unduly prejudiced because of the lack of information forthcoming from those witnesses.  Furthermore, any findings of liability may have been prejudicial to officers concerned in the criminal enquiry.

I have agreed therefore to accept the legal advice given to me and to settle out-of-court.[9]

2.7.22 As the police solicitors, Hammond Suddards, subsequently explained in a letter to the Steering Committee of solicitors representing claimants (Hillsborough families), the settlement offer applied only to claims that fell within certain categories.[10] It stated 'all bona fide claims for compensation by those injured and the dependants of those who died at the ground will be paid on a common law basis to be agreed if possible or, failing agreement, to be assessed by the Court'.

2.7.23 Compensation would be 'paid for nervous shock cases, if they would be entitled to damages by law'. The relevant categories for inclusion were claimants who were: in pens 3 or 4 and suffered physical injury and nervous shock;[11] in pens 3 or 4 and suffered no physical injury but suffered nervous shock; in another part of the ground and saw a spouse or child injured or killed; in another part of the ground and, knowing or believing a spouse or child to be in pens 3 or 4, later found them injured or dead; and persons involved in rescue attempts who were not originally in pens 3 or 4.[12]

2.7.24 Settlements were offered 'without making any admission of liability'.[13] This was for two key reasons. First, it was considered that to do otherwise would risk prejudicing the interests of those officers under criminal investigation.

2.7.25 Second, as the Hillsborough Steering Committee explained in an update to its solicitors,[14] it reflected SYP's intention to 'pursue a claim' against the other potentially liable organisations.[15] The offers were accepted by the Steering Committee on behalf of the relevant claimants.

2.7.26 In the wake of the settlements, the level of compensation paid in relation to those who died was decided on the basis of the category in which the claim fell and the personal situation of the deceased. In cases that concerned the death of children, their parents received no more than the statutory bereavement allowance of £3,500 and funeral expenses.[16] 

2.7.27 Cases that concerned the death of adults survived by dependants resulted in higher payments. Compensation for those who endured physical or psychological injury was assessed on the nature and extent of the injury, resulting loss of earnings or any ongoing medical costs.

[8] 'PRESS STATEMENT OF THE CHIEF CONSTABLE', 30 November 1989, SYP000160110001, p7.
[9] Memorandum from Chief Constable Wright to all Chief Superintendents, 30 November 1989, SYP000160110001, p6.
[10] Letter from Hammond Suddards to Hillsborough Steering Committee, 15 December 1989, SYP000160110001, pp2-5.
[11] 'Nervous shock' in this context is a generic term signifying any recognised psychiatric injury sustained as a result of shock, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (publications.nice.org.uk/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-cg26/guidance#the-symptoms-of-ptsd) describes the symptoms of PTSD as follows:
'The most characteristic symptoms of PTSD are re-experiencing symptoms. PTSD sufferers involuntarily re-experience aspects of the traumatic event in a very vivid and distressing way. This includes flashbacks where the person acts or feels as if the event was recurring; nightmares; and repetitive and distressing intrusive images or other sensory impressions from the event. Reminders of the traumatic event arouse intense distress and/or physiological reactions. In children, re-experiencing symptoms may take the form of re-enacting the experience, repetitive play or frightening dreams without recognisable content.
Avoidance of reminders of the trauma is another core symptom of PTSD. This includes people, situations or circumstances resembling or associated with the event. People with PTSD often try to push memories of the event out of their mind and avoid thinking or talking about it in detail, particularly about its worst moments. On the other hand, many ruminate excessively about questions that prevent them from coming to terms with the event (for example, about why the event happened to them, about how it could have been prevented, or about how they could take revenge).
PTSD sufferers also experience symptoms of hyperarousal including hypervigilance for threat, exaggerated startle responses, irritability and difficulty concentrating, and sleep problems. Others with PTSD also describe symptoms of emotional numbing. These include lack of ability to experience feelings, feeling detached from other people, giving up previously significant activities, and amnesia for significant parts of the event.
Symptoms of PTSD often develop immediately after the traumatic event but in some (less than 15% of all sufferers) the onset of symptoms may be delayed. PTSD sufferers may not present for treatment for months or years after the onset of symptoms despite the considerable distress experienced, but PTSD is a treatable disorder even when problems present many years after the traumatic event. Assessment of PTSD can, however, present significant challenges as many people avoid talking about their problems even when presenting with associated complaints.' www.nice.org.uk/nicemedia/pdf/CG026NICEguideline.pdf.These symptoms are a usual reaction to a traumatic event.  However, their persistence and severity to the extent that they interfere with well-being constitute PTSD.  Because of the circumstances of the disaster many more people than otherwise would be expected to suffer incapacitating PTSD.
[12] Letter from Hammond Suddards to Hillsborough Steering Committee, 15 December 1989, SYP000160110001, pp2-5.
[13] Memorandum from Chief Constable Wright to all Chief Superintendents, 30 November 1989, SYP000160110001, p6.
[14] Letter from Elizabeth Steel of Hillsborough Steering Committee to a firm of Solicitors: Hillsborough Group Bulletin 11, 30 November 1989, FAM000000180001.
[15] 'SOUTH YORKSHIRE POLICE AUTHORITY, FINANCE AND GENERAL PURPOSES COMMITTEE', 8 December 1989, SPA000000760001, p1.
[16] For example, see press cutting, Daily Mirror, 3 February 1995, SYP000160120001.