Intended for healthcare professionals


Veterans sue Ministry of Defence over post-traumatic stress disorder

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 09 March 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:563
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    The United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence was accused this week of widespread failure over more than two decades to deal with the psychological effects of combat on soldiers, as a group action by nearly 2000 former servicemen got under way at the High Court in London.

    The case, one of the biggest personal injury claims to reach the UK courts, could cost the ministry £500m ($711m; €818m) if it loses.

    The former soldiers, veterans of combat in Northern Ireland, the Gulf, the Falklands, and the Balkans, have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress conditions. They claim that the Ministry of Defence was negligent in failing to prepare them for the horrors of battle, to screen out vulnerable individuals, to debrief them properly, to recognise and treat their post-traumatic stress disorder, and to help them cope with their return to civilian life.

    Their counsel, Stephen Irwin QC, told Mr Justice Owen that the ministry had rejected an offer to try to settle the case by mediation, a move which would have saved the £12m cost of the trial. The soldiers' legal costs are funded by the taxpayer through the legal services commission, so both sides' costs will come from public funds.

    The claimants' lawyers this week released extracts from a 1992 report from an army consultant psychiatrist, highlighting the inadequacies of the services' response to post-traumatic stress disorder. They also said that the Pentagon had blocked two experts, Dr Matthew Friedman and Dr Terence Keane, who work for the US department of veterans affairs, from testifying on behalf of the claimants, while allowing a Pentagon expert to assist with the ministry's defence. The reason given was that “it would be more consistent with the interest of the US government to have its employees testify on behalf of the British government.”

    The high court trial, which is set to last up to seven months and hear evidence from experts from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel, will focus on 15 lead cases from 254 cases that make up the group action. Another 1600 veterans have registered claims, which will be assessed if the group action is successful.

    Mr Irwin told the judge: “I wish to stress to the court that we for the claimants are not suing the Ministry of Defence for exposure to war.

    “War is what soldiers should expect, and it is what they sign up for. It is also what their masters should expect, and they should provide for this exposure to the horrors of war. In a sentence, we say they did not.

    “They didn't do it systematically, and so far as they had a system, it did not work properly to protect and care for soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the forces.”

    A “macho” attitude to psychiatric problems in the forces was partly to blame for the “systemic failure,” Mr Irwin said.

    Embedded Image

    British soldiers throwing a phosphorous grenade in the Gulf war

    (Credit: MIKE MOORE/REX)

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