Civil Law

By Alexis Currier


That’s one small step from medical negligence, and one giant leap to reputational damage

Nearly 50 years ago to the day, Neil Armstrong was the first man to land on the moon and solidify his place in the history books. However, just a few days after this anniversary was celebrated, the anniversary was overshadowed by news breaking that a claim had been made by Mr Armstrong’s family in relation to his death in 2012 at 82 years old.[1]

Mr Armstrong had undergone bypass surgery in August of 2012, but when the wires were removed from the temporary pacemaker, bleeding began in the membrane surrounding Mr Armstrong’s heart leading to a series of serious of issues ultimately resulting in his death on 25 August 2012. [2]

The news only came in light after the New York Times received mail from an unknown sender only days after the 50th anniversary of the moon landing was celebrated. These documents detailed Mr Armstrong’s treatment and with a note from the sender stating that they hoped the information enclosed would save other lives.[3] Ultimately, the hospital defended their care of Mr Armstrong, but paid his family $6 million USD (approximately $8.6 million AUD) to settle the claim privately and out of court.[4]

This provides a departure from the general practise of medical negligence settlements remaining confidential, as parties are generally complete a non-disclosure to prevent the publication of information relating to the settlement. In a matter with a public figure like Mr Armstrong, confidentially surrounding the matter was likely in the best interest of the hospital to avoid the negative publicity that would come with a perceived accountability for the death of one of ‘America’s Heroes’. [5]

Although the settlement sum has now become public knowledge, the settlement could be ‘undone’, and Mr Armstrong’s beneficiaries (his two sons, his brother, sister and six grandchildren[6]) may lose their entitlements if the term on which the matter was settled were to be released, if it could be proved that they were responsible for the leak of information.[7]

Following the leak provided to the New York Times, Nanette Bentley, a spokesperson for the hospital spoke to The Cincinnati Enquirer, and noted that the “public nature of these details is very disappointing – both for our ministry and the patient’s family who has wished to keep this legal matter private.”[8]

Wrongful death and medical negligence in the Australian Capital Territory

The fundamental function of the laws in relation to claims for wrongful death is to provide compensation to the Plaintiff to return them, as far as money can, to the position they would have been in but for the Defendant’s wrongful act that caused the decedent’s death.[9]

In the Australian Capital Territory, claims for ‘wrongful death’ are brought under the Civil Law (Wrongs) Act 2002. A claim may be brought under Division 3.1.2, section 24 if the following provisions apply:

24 Liability for a person’s death

If –

  1. a person’s death is caused by a wrongful act or omission (whether or not an offence); and
  2. the act or omission would, if death had not resulted, have entitled the person to recover damages in an action for personal injury;

the person who would have been liable if the death had not resulted is liable for action for damages despite the death and whether or not the death was caused by circumstances that were an offence.[10]

Importantly in a claim, contributory negligence on the part of the decedent is not a defence and will not act to reduce the damages recoverable

It is important to note that the legal systems in Australia and the United States differ, and a sum such as the one achieved in the claim made by Mr Armstrong’s beneficiaries (equating to $8.6 million AUD) is a sum that would be difficult to achieve for the ‘everyday man’. Mr Armstrong being a public figure likely played into the negotiations and may have assisted in persuading the hospital to settle for such a large sum.

Wrongful death is an area of tort law that provides an opportunity for the loved ones of a decedent to make a claim for damages for a wrong that lead to their loved one’s death. Mr Armstrong’s matter is a reminder that things can go wrong, but the law provides avenues for people responsible of negligence to be held accountable. For advice and representation if you find yourself in a similar situation, contact Aulich Civil Law on (02) 6279 4222.

[1] ‘Neil Armstrong’s family paid $8.6 million in wrongful death claim’, ABC News (online, 24 July 2019) <$8.6-million-wrongful-death-claim/11343472>.

[2] Scott Shane and Sarah Kliff, ‘Neil Armstrong’s Death, and a Stormy, Secret $6 Million Settlement’, The New York Times (online, 23 July 2019) <>.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ‘Neil Armstrong’s family paid $8.6 million in wrongful death claim’, ABC News (online, 24 July 2019) <$8.6-million-wrongful-death-claim/11343472>.

[7] Scott Shane and Sarah Kliff, ‘Neil Armstrong’s Death, and a Stormy, Secret $6 Million Settlement’, The New York Times (online, 23 July 2019) <>.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tracey Carver, ‘Wife after death: the assessment of damages for wrongful death’ (2003) Queensland University of Technology, 7.

[10] Civil Law (Wrongs) Act 2002.