Compensation for psychiatric injuries following death of a child: Rasmussen v v South Western Sydney Local Health District [2013] NSWSC 656

13 May 2015
The loss of a child is a traumatic event for any parent but where the death occurs due to another’s negligence, it can be the cause of major psychiatric sequelae.

A recent decision of the NSW Supreme Court in Rasmussen v South Western Sydney Local Health District [2013] NSWSC 656 provides guidance to parties on the likely compensation an aggrieved parent might receive for pain and suffering secondary to their psychiatric injury.

In this case, Vanessa Rasmussen gave birth to her first child on 18 August 2007 at Liverpool Hospital. The baby, Kaden, suffered brain damage and was ventilated and placed in intensive care. Unfortunately, he died four days later after Ms Rasmussen agreed to turn off life support.

Over the next five years, the Mrs Rasmussen suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder without substantial improvement. Understandably, the Court was sympathetic to her experience, noting: ‘She held him in her arms until he died. I accept her evidence that these four days were ‘a living hell’ and that the decision to turn off the ventilator that sustained him was a terrible and heart-wrenching, albeit a merciful and necessary, one.’ 

The Court found that Kaden’s death had changed Mrs Rasmussen substantially, from being optimistic and ambitious to someone who confines her social activities to the family circle and close friends. Into the future, the Court accepted that she remained vulnerable to stressors, particularly those associated with childbirth and children. The Court accepted that the plaintiff’s mental state would likely improve with treatment and the passage of time.

Ultimately, the Court assessed the plaintiff’s damages for pain and suffering to be worth $214,000.00. She also received additional damages for out of pocket expenses, future treatment expenses and compensation for an inability to work. This case is useful for future cases as it sets a benchmark in NSW for the value of psychiatric injuries secondary to loss of a child. The court quite properly highlighted via a monetary figure the severity such a loss has on a parent. 

By Damon Booth