Daredevil antics can make good television but, when things go wrong, broadcasters can expect to carry the legal can. The BBC found that out when it was ordered to pay over £1.6 million in compensation to a presenter who was badly injured whilst playing the role of a human crash test dummy in a popular science show.
Jem Stansfield, then a presenter on the BBC’s ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ show, was strapped into a go-cart-like rig during a 2013 episode and propelled four times along a track into a post. The experiment was designed to test the relative safety of child car seats and to simulate the impact of a car hitting a lamppost.
Mr Stansfield, aged 42 at the time, subsequently suffered a constellation of physical and mental symptoms that affected all aspects of his life, particularly his ability to pursue his hitherto successful career. After he launched proceedings, the BBC agreed to pay him two thirds of the full value of his personal injury claim. The broadcaster, however, disputed the extent of his injuries and argued that he was only entitled to a modest award of damages.
Although Mr Stansfield was at the time extremely fit and functioning at the level of a competitive athlete, the High Court expressed astonishment that the experiment was considered a sensible idea. It might have been thought that someone of his intellect and scientific background would have appreciated the risk involved. Equally, however, the BBC had actively sought advice, had been warned of the danger and yet had permitted the experiment to proceed.
The Court found that the experiment caused injury to Mr Stansfield’s brain and to his audio-vestibular system. Whilst none of his physical injuries were particularly severe, the combined effect together with his psychiatric reaction caused a host of symptoms and problems that significantly impaired his functioning. His TV career had been derailed and his general enjoyment of life restricted.
The Court assessed the overall value of his claim at over £2.4 million, the majority of which related to his past and future loss of earnings. After the agreed one-third deduction, however, his total award came to £1,617,286. The BBC was also ordered to pay very substantial legal costs.