In a series of settlement meetings, David Knifton QC and Chris Barnes have negotiated substantial damages on behalf of 3 former servicemen who suffered severe injuries when their inadequately-armoured vehicles struck roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. The claims raised difficult legal issues regarding the scope of the defence of combat immunity.
The vehicles in question were Pinzgauer troop carriers, manufactured by BAE Systems PLC. Although introduced as a replacement for Snatch Land Rovers, experience during combat operations in Iraq had raised serious concerns that the Pinzgauer provided inadequate blast protection from roadside explosives, principally due to 2 factors: (1) the underside of the vehicle, although armoured, was flat, rather than V-shaped, such that it was incapable of deflecting the blast from a mine or IED away from the vehicle; (2) the design of the vehicle placed the driver and front seat passenger directly over the front wheels, where they were most exposed to the effects of the blast, in the area known as the “cone of destruction”. As a result, the vehicles had been nicknamed “coffins on wheels” by UK troops.
Despite such concerns being widely publicised through Parliamentary questions and newspaper articles, the MOD procured a fleet of 166 Pinzgauer vehicles, which were introduced into combat operations in Afghanistan in April 2007 during Operation Herrick. The principal variant, known as a Vector, was designed as an armoured patrol vehicle, although other versions were used as general utility trucks for transporting troops and equipment.
On 5.10.08, a Royal Marine serving with 42 Commando suffered multiple severe fractures when the Vector in which he was travelling as a front seat passenger struck an IED. Following a number of similar incidents, the MOD agreed in May 2009 that the vehicles were to be withdrawn from operations in Afghanistan, due to their vulnerability. Nevertheless, on 3.8.09, a Pinzgauer truck was deployed as an ambulance to recover a casualty injured in a previous attack. It struck an IED, causing the driver to suffer an above-knee amputation of his right leg, and a Territorial Reserve officer in the front passenger seat to suffer severe psychological and physical injuries.
In each case, it was alleged by the Claimants that their injuries would have been avoided had they been travelling in suitably-armoured vehicles, such as the mine-resistant vehicles used by other NATO contingents in Afghanistan, including German, French, Canadian and US forces. Proceedings were commenced against the MOD on the basis that the decision to supply the Pinzgauer vehicles to troops serving in Afghanistan was negligent.
The claims were vigorously defended by the Government, which relied principally on the defence of combat immunity, arguing that no duty of care was owed in circumstances where the injuries occurred during combat operations. In Smith v MOD  UKSC 41, however, the Supreme Court decided by a majority not to strike out similar claims relating to the procurement and deployment of inadequately-armoured Snatch Land Rovers, and due to friendly fire between tanks which were not equipped with suitable recognition devices. The Court reasoned that the procurement decisions had not been taken in the heat of battle, such that they might not fall within the scope of the combat immunity defence. As a result, the MOD agreed in 2016 that it would settle the claims relating to the Pinzgauer vehicles, without any admission of liability.
Following exchange of medical evidence, substantial awards were negotiated on behalf of each Claimant at settlement meetings held in Liverpool and London in December 2019 and January 2020. Taking into account the awards already made to each Claimant under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, the global value of the 3 claims totalled over £10m.
Commenting on the awards, David Knifton QC said: “It has been a real privilege to represent these Claimants. They have each demonstrated remarkable courage, resolve and fortitude in seeking to recover from their horrendous injuries. Whilst the litigation must at times have been extremely frustrating, their determination to succeed is testament to the finest qualities of our armed forces. I wish them every success in rebuilding their lives.”
David Knifton QC and Chris Barnes were instructed by Hilary Meredith Solicitors with Partner and Head of Military, Simon Quinn, leading their team.
Said Simon Quinn:
“After a hard fought and lengthy battle for compensation in which there were very real risks of failure, particularly regarding Combat Immunity, it has been a privilege to represent these Claimants who have shown resilience, perseverance and sheer grit in their determination to achieve justice and hold the MoD to account.
“The seven figure settlements we have reached in each case reflects the serious nature of the Claimants’ injuries together with their subsequent medical discharge from the Armed Forces.
“It is to be hoped that in any future conflict our troops will be provided with the best equipment available before death or serious injury occurs.”