Family vs professional care - part 4: giving up a job to care for an injured relative

One particular area which deserves better attention than it currently receives is where a family member gives up his or her job to look after the injured person. To take an extreme, say the patient's father feels that he has to stop work because his wife is near a nervous breakdown as a result of the stress of looking after their catastrophically injured son. Whether that decision is justified will depend on the precise circumstances, but it may be possible to show that it was a sensible and reasonable thing to do; I say that because many people would not give up their work unless they felt compelled to do so. It should follow that the father can claim for his loss of earnings, and that is theoretically possible. The reasoning is that he has given up his job so that he can take on the job of looking after his son, and therefore he should be paid the proper value of the new job. What is more difficult is where the father remains off work long-term. This may be either because he chooses to do so, on the basis that he is the best carer for his child, or because, having given up his job, he cannot then obtain another. Different legal principles apply to the different scenarios. If father takes on the new job of looking after his son, the court would have to place a value on his services. On the other hand, if he looks after his son for some time, but cannot then find an alternative job, the judge would probably say that this problem was too far removed from the original injury ("too remote" in legal jargon), and so the father could not recover for the continuing loss of earnings.

The decision to abandon the job must be sensible and reasonable, like all the others in the course of litigation. One important factor will be the father's earnings; if he was earning far more than it would cost to employ a professional carer, he could only justify his decision if his presence as a carer was required, and paid support would not suffice. That may be so in the scenario we are considering, because if his wife is highly stressed she may be unable to cope with an outsider. On the other hand, it will be much more difficult for the father to justify long- term absence from work if he could earn more than the cost of professional care. If the father was earning about the same as the cost of care, the decision would be easier, because he is merely exchanging one job for another, equally well paid.

One point to note is that if the person providing care is the person who caused the injury (for example, husband driving carelessly at the time of the injury to the wife or the other way round), the Courts do not allow any payment for the value of care he provides. The idea is that the negligent party ("tortfeasor" in legal terminology) should not profit from his wrongdoing and, as damages for family care are meant to be used to compensate the family member for his or her work, that rule would be breached. Silly really, because it increases the incentive for the family to arrange professional carers, thus increasing the cost to the insurance company.