Payout to ex-RUC man for trauma over 1983 stray round shooting ‘may pave way for more’

An award of £50,000 to an ex-RUC officer for trauma suffered on the job highlights the pressures faced by police – and “may pave the way” for other such payouts.

A cap bearing the badge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary
A cap bearing the badge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary

That is the possibility raised by the case of Colin Keys, who retired in 2002 and has now won a compensation claim over an armed robbery some 39 years ago, in which an 80-year-old woman was killed by a stray round during a gunfight.

Another payout to him for loss of earnings is expected to be made at a later date.

Mr Keys’ lawyer said that the case “sets an important precedent for the assessment of damages arising out of conflict-related incidents”.

And Liam Kelly, chair of the NI Police Federation, said: “Policing comes with many different pressures and what Colin Keys endured highlights the harmful effects that often come with involvement in what was obviously a highly-charged incident.

“Firstly, my thoughts are with this former officer and what he experienced.

“His personal and professional life was clearly turned upside down because of what happened and that has been acknowledged and accepted.

“When he left his home that day, I’m sure the last thing he expected was to be involved in an exchange of gunfire.

“This High Court award will be studied in full to see what implications there may or may not be for other officers.

“We note the comment from Mr Keys’ solicitor that the award sets a precedent.

“If it does, it may pave the way for other former officers to also individually take similar court action for the trauma, stresses and psychological damage that was inflicted as they served this entire community.”

THE PARTICULARS OF THE CASE:

The award was made to Mr Keys as part of his action against the chief constable for negligence surrounding the security operation at Pomeroy, Co Tyrone, in November 1983.

Local woman Brigid Foster, 80, was hit and fatally wounded by a police bullet during the shootout with raiders escaping from the village’s post office.

Finding that Mr Keys went on to suffer periods of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Mr Justice Shaw said: “I accept he is now to be regarded as vulnerable to psychological effects of trauma and that stress could retrigger in him the Pomeroy incident.”

The 59-year-old ex-policeman was in a separate unsuccessful group action taken by thousands of rank and file officers seeking compensation for how their trauma was treated during decades of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland.

He sued again individually, claiming that his exposure to the events in Pomeroy caused chronic suffering and ultimately his retirement on medical grounds.

The case was conceded on the basis that the defendant admitted RUC negligence in the conduct of the police operation at Pomeroy, resulting in a psychiatric injury of PTSD sustained by Mr Keys.

Separate claims that his authorities failed him over the alleged use of undercover police informants within paramilitary groups were denied and ultimately withdrawn from the action.

In a judgment dealing only with the level of damages to award, Mr Justice Shaw had to determine the former officer’s complaint that his life has been marred.

‘DEVASTATED BY THOUGHT IT WAS MY BULLET’

Mr Keys was part of a police patrol shot at by two masked men who had targeted the post office, the court heard.

The RUC officers returned fire, but the raiders managed to escape.

During exchanges Mrs Foster, an innocent passer-by standing inside the post office, was struck and killed by a stray police bullet.

Mr Keys was placed on leave following the incident and later transferred to another station.

He later served as a close protection officer and within CID, but has not worked since being medically retired in April 2002.

Mr Keys told the court how he had been devastated by the thought that he may have shot dead an elderly woman at Pomeroy.

However, weeks later he was informed that forensics had established that another officer fired the fatal round.

Ruling on the extent to which the events at the post office contributed to the plaintiff’s chronic mental health problems, Mr Justice Shaw found that he suffered from PTSD at a diagnostic level for a period of two years.

The judge also held that the condition has “fluctuated” since then, with further episodes partially linked to Mr Keys’ “obsession” with the protracted litigation.

Following the judgment Mr Keys’ solicitor, Kevin Winters, said: “This case sets an important precedent for the assessment of damages arising out of conflict-related incidents.”