Is your enemy’s enemy your friend? Proportionate liability cases and the rule in Jones v Dunkel

The rule in Jones v Dunkel permits a court to draw an inference at trial from a party’s unexplained failure to call a witness logically within that party’s camp. The permissible inference is that the absent witness’s evidence, if led, would not have assisted that witness’s camp.

The rule is not new.  It actually predates the case from which it takes its name – Jones v Dunkel (1959) 101 CLR 298.

Particularly since the commencement in 2004 of Part IVAA of the Wrongs Act (Vic) and its federal equivalents, apportionable liability cases have become commonplace. This has complicated the application of the Jones v Dunkel rule.

Co-defendants in commerical litigation now typically pitch their case at two levels:

  • firstly, they will argue in unison that the plaintiff’s case should fail;
  • secondly, as a fallback, they will argue against each other that, if the plaintiff succeeds, the other co-defendant(s) should wear all, or most, of the resulting liability.

These issues arose (on the pleadings at least) in Goddard Elliott v Fritsch [2012] VSC 87 (see my post below of 29 March 2012 for a brief overview of the case’s facts and issues).

There a disgruntled client sued his solicitors, plus the silk and senior junior retained on his behalf.

He alleged, inter alia, negligence against each of them. Both barristers settled but the solicitors fought the case to verdict. The barristers remained as nominal parties in the trial for the purposes of the apportionment issues.

In defending the negligence claim the solicitors did not call evidence from the silk in support of their case. But neither did the client call evidence from that silk in support of his case.

The client then asked the court to draw an adverse inference against the solicitors in accordance with the rule in Jones v Dunkel.

‘But the silk is an independent party and not within our camp’, replied the solicitors.

Bell J disagreed. Here are some extracts taken from between para 32 and 49 of the 1136 paragraph judgment:

“In the negligence and other claims which have been made, and in the factual basis of what has been alleged, the nature of that case puts all of the defendants by counterclaim in the one camp….

“… It was within the power of [the solicitors] to call [the silk] as a witness in relation to important issues of fact in the case, particularly [the client’s] mental capacity and what occurred when the proceeding in the Family Court was settled…

“As [the silk) was in [the solicitors’ firm’s] camp, it was reasonably to be expected that it would call him to give evidence on its behalf. For reasons which were not explained, it failed to do so.

“The unexplained failure of [the solicitors] to call [the silk] gives rise to an inference that his evidence would not have assisted [the solicitors’] case.  That inference may be taken into account against [the solicitors] in evaluating the whole of the evidence of the case, including the evidence of [the client]. By reason of [the solicitors’] failure to call [the silk] I might more readily resolve any doubts I have about the reliability of [the client’s] evidence.

Conclusion

This ruling illustrates a conundrum likely to arise in many (perhaps even most?) multi-party cases where an apportionment of liability as between defendants (and/or joined parties) is sought.

For each co-defendant, the plaintiff will typically be the primary adversary but not the only adversary. Typically, each of the co-defendants will also be trying to shunt maximum liability on to each other’s plates. In that sense, every other ‘camp’ in the litigation will be an enemy camp.

But, for the purposes of the rule in Jones v Dunkell, your opposition’s opposition might be considered (by the Court at least) to be your friend.  The co-defendant trying to minimise his liability at your expense might very well be considered to have been within your ‘camp’ in the event of your unexplained failure to call evidence from that person.

But dare you call a hostile co-defendant to give evidence on your behalf?

Therein lies a post for another day…

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