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Abuse victim awarded $2.4 million as 1994 payout overturned 

A court has set aside a three-decade-old settlement of $34,000 in a sexual abuse case and awarded the victim $2.4 million in damages for the same claim. 

It is considered a landmark ruling because the Tasmanian Supreme Court “effectively confirmed” earlier settlements will not stop an applicant reopening their claim, law firm Clyde & Co says. 

“Parties ought not to simply assume that an earlier settlement of a claim will prima facie preclude a survivor from reopening their cause of action,” the firm said.  

The original settlement deed stipulated “a full and comprehensive” release from future liability for the Anglican Church. Victim John Steen was 23 at the time of that deed. 

Earlier this month, the court agreed to “set aside the 1994 deed as a bar to his action”. 

It took into consideration a disparity in bargaining positions, with Mr Steen young and in poor psychological health at the time. 

This month’s proceedings, against the Trustees of the Diocese of Tasmania, related to sexual assault by Anglican priest Louis Daniels between 1981 and 1987 when Mr Steen was aged 10 to 16. He is now 53 and an academic. 

Daniels, who was Church of England Boys’ Society (CEBS) chief commissioner from 1978, had in 1994 admitted liability and made full admissions of the abuse, which occurred at annual summer camps where he was director. 

The court said denial of liability by the church in 1994, and its decision to require that the $34,000 be paid solely by Daniels and make no contribution, “had been oppressive”. 

“By 1981, responsible members of the defendant were aware of the prior behaviour of Mr Daniels, which involved sexual misconduct against a child. Notwithstanding this knowledge, Mr Daniels was permitted to continue his work as a priest and his involvement with CEBS. The latter gave him unfettered and direct access to young persons and children,” the Tasmanian Supreme Court’s Justice Michael Brett said. 

With the deed set aside and Mr Steen’s original cause of action restored, the judge assessed general damages at $275,000 and aggravated damages at $125,000 due to the church’s negligence and not “properly appreciating the seriousness and ongoing effects” of the abuse. 

He awarded a further $100,000 for the church’s “contumelious” behaviour.  

Impairment of earning capacity was assessed at $350,000 and $1.18 million was awarded for loss of future earning capacity. Another $81,711 was awarded for treatment.  

No deduction of the original $34,000 settlement – which featured just $20,000 for future economic loss, for delay in the completion of Mr Steen’s PhD – was ordered. 

Meetings were held with then-bishop Philip Newell in 1987 after Mr Steen was told by other summer campers, “CD” and “AB”, that they had also been sexually abused by Daniels. AB died by suicide in 2004. 

Clyde & Co says the sole available ground for setting aside a previous agreement in Tasmania is if it is in the “interest of justice”, as provided under section 5C of the Limitation Act 1974 (TAS).  

The practice is yet to be dealt with in states such as NSW, and the law firm recommends insurers and insureds assess exposure to “substantial quantum assessments” amid a trend across Australian jurisdictions to reopen historic cases. 

See the ruling here

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