Product Fatal Accidents - Who is a Spouse?

The Fatal Accidents Act 1976 allows dependants to claim for the loss they suffer as a result of the death of the person on whom they are dependant, for example where a spouse dies in an accident. This raises the question of the meaning of the word ‘spouse’ for the purposes of this legislation.

A recent case looked at circumstances which, whilst relatively uncommon, are becoming more usual. It involved a man and a woman who, having been friends for many years, became a couple in 1995. One lived in Sheffield and the other lived in Doncaster, although each spent time at the other’s house. In 1996, the male partner living in Doncaster went to work in London, so stayed there during the week, coming back to Sheffield to spend most weekends. In 1999, the couple had a child and the male partner informed his employers that his address had changed to their Sheffield address.

In March 2000, the man was killed in a car crash and a claim was made for loss of dependency on behalf of his partner and their child. The claim was disputed on the ground that she had not lived as his wife in the same house as the deceased for two years prior to his death – the definition of spouse in the legislation. The case ended up in the Court of Appeal.

In the Court’s view, the fact that a person retained a separate house, to which he or she went temporarily from time to time, would not prevent him or her from having their household elsewhere, unless they made use of the separate house and regarded themselves as still resident there. In this case, that meant deciding whether the Sheffield house was or was not regarded by the couple as being their mutual home. Until the pregnancy, the deceased had effectively only ‘overnighted’ in Sheffield, keeping his clothes in his house in Doncaster and carrying an overnight bag for his visits to Sheffield. The claimant admitted that the couple had only planned a life together after the pregnancy. Since the ‘two year’ rule meant they had to have established a joint household by March 1998, the appeal failed.

This unusual case concerned exactly when the couple started a joint household. There was no question that one existed at the time of the fatal accident. It does clarify the position somewhat regarding couples who maintain separate homes and makes it clear that, for the purposes of the legislation, where there is the intention to share a life together, the evidence of this intention will be critical.

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