What is your research about?

“The people who cause injuries. I looked at cases of medical liability and traffic accidents. For the past thirty years or so, there has been a greater focus on the victim. Before that, the principal concerns were the financial and legal issues. Victims have not only financial but also intangible needs. The need for an apology, with an explicit appeal being made to the perpetrator, is an example of this. However, at present, the perpetrator is hardly involved in the claims settlement process.

“Meanwhile, studies have shown that any involvement in medical errors is very distressing for doctors. This can cause problems such as sleepless nights, depression and, in extreme cases, suicidal tendencies.”

Is it any different in traffic cases?

“In medical cases, doctors have a duty of care, which doesn’t stop after treatment, so their involvement makes sense in a way. People who cause traffic accidents generally receive much less attention. Particularly in traffic cases that don’t end up in the criminal domain, the perpetrator runs the risk of falling into a vacuum. The insurance company handles the settlement, and the person who caused the accident sometimes doesn’t even know how the victim is doing after being taken to hospital.

“This is despite the fact that someone who has caused an accident may be weighed down by that considerably, with similarly violent reactions to those of doctors. These are often people who simply got into the car thinking ‘I need to get from A to B’, but then they collide with someone in a wheelchair. I spoke to a man who had killed someone and who had already attempted suicide. In the interview, he told me: ‘I don’t deserve to be alive.'”

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So, people who cause accidents need more information and contact?

“In most people I spoke to, I sensed a willingness to do something for the victim. In some cases, if the victim didn’t feel the need for such a gesture, it affected them on a personal level. Of course, in an interview study, you depend on people wanting to speak to you. So you don’t speak to the people who want to put it behind them and are seemingly indifferent. Still, the interviews do make it clear that there is often a willingness on the part of the perpetrator to do something meaningful for the victim and that this willingness is by no means always utilised.”

Had you expected the aftermath to be so intense for perpetrators?

“A little – but hearing about it from the person themselves can be very poignant. For example, I spoke to a bus driver involved in an accident with a cyclist. The woman was on an e-bike and ran a red light. From a legal point of view, at least fifty per cent of liability always lies with the motorised vehicle, even if the fault lies with the other person. A family member had made some negative comments about the accident and the behaviour of bus drivers in general on Facebook. This driver felt such a sense of injustice that he immediately burst into tears during the conversation. That does leave an impression. As a lawyer, I know that rule, and I understand the reasoning behind it, but when you see the feelings it evokes, you look at it differently. As far as I’m concerned, an important question for personal injury practice is: how do you give the perpetrator a role in the settlement process that does justice to the victim, without wronging the perpetrator?”

There has been a lot of media coverage of your dissertation. How do you feel about that?

“The key message of my book is: ‘We should look at the perpetrator with a little more empathy.’ The media often cover very violent accidents involving seriously culpable traffic behaviour, like street racing or excessive alcohol consumption. These are cases where that message is a far more sensitive issue. The cases in my thesis are mainly about people who did not intend to cause harm. That’s why I welcome the media coverage of my dissertation. I hope the seeds will be planted in relation to how society as a whole, and personal injury practice in particular, can contribute to better personal coping strategies for all those involved in accidents. Not just for the victim – but for the perpetrator, too.”

Your acceptance speech started with a quote from your daughter: “Mum, no one’s going to read it anyway!”

“Haha – yes, it’s so true. A lot of dissertations aren’t read from cover to cover, which is something, as an eight-year-old, she sensed very keenly. I thought: either she will be proved right or people will be triggered to read on. The great thing is that I have spoken to more people who have done just that. I also encourage them to skip to the chapters in which I report on interviews with the people who have caused injuries. Their perspective is so fascinating to me that I never tire of my topic.”

Débora Póvoa 0423-006 maart 2023_Levien Willemse

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