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Nuclear Test Claims and the Limitation Act 1980

The Supreme Court has ruled in the case of Ministry of Defence v AB & Ors [2012] UKSC 9 that a group of servicemen who had claimed to have suffered ill-health as a result of exposure to radiation during nuclear tests in the 1950s in Australia and on Christmas Island, could not continue with claims for damages against the Ministry of Defence. The Court ruled, by a 4-3 majority, that their claims were time-barred under the Limitation Act 1980.

The Limitation Act 1980 (“the Act”) lays down time limits for numerous types of claims. In personal injury claims, as here, the time-limit is 3 years from either (a) the date on which the cause of action accrued or (b) the date of knowledge (if later) of the person injured (s.11(4) of the Act). The date of a person’s ‘knowledge’ refers to knowledge that the injury in question was significant; that it was attributable to the act or omission that is the subject of the claim or complaint; and the identity of the defendant or person responsible for the act or omission (s.14).

Here, the servicemen claimed that they did not have the requisite knowledge until 2007, when an expert medical report identified abnormal changes in blood samples of those involved in the nuclear testing. The Court of Appeal had previously held that of 10 sample claimants, 9 had acquired the requisite knowledge more than 3 years before issuing proceedings and that those claims should not be allowed to proceed. They appealed to the Supreme Court against that decision.

The Supreme Court held that the correct test for when a claimant was likely to have the requisite state of mind to amount to “knowledge” for the purposes of s.14 of the Act was when he first came reasonably to believe (rather than merely suspect) the link between the facts and the injury and to hold that belief with sufficient confidence to begin an investigation into whether he had a valid claim. Applying this test to the facts of the 9 cases led the Supreme Court to conclude that the claimants each reasonably believed their injuries were capable of being attributed to the nuclear tests more than three years before the claims were issued and that they were, consequently, time-barred.

The case is a reminder to anyone who considers that they may have a claim against another that the Act provides for time-limits on the bringing of actions which differ according to the type of claim.

If you have any queries regarding the time-limits for bringing claims, please contact Marie-Louise King, Partner in Druces LLP’s Litigation & Dispute Resolution team