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Classical musician wins landmark High Court ruling on hearing damage

By | Published on Thursday 29 March 2018

Royal Opera House

Viola player Chris Goldscheider has won a landmark case against the Royal Opera House in the High Court. He accused the venue of being liable for hearing damage he sustained during a rehearsal six years ago, citing ROH’s possible responsibilities under UK Noise Regulations.

This is the first time that a sufferer of so called ‘acoustic shock’ has been awarded compensation by a court. The ruling could therefore have huge implications for the classical music industry, and the wider music business as a whole.

Goldscheider said that he suffered severe hearing damage during a rehearsal of Wagner’s ‘Die Walkure’ in 2012 after sound levels of the performance reached 130 decibels. He said that he had been left unable to hear sound normally without experiencing pain. As a result he has to wear ear protection to carry out even normal household tasks.

He says that he spent eighteen months attempting to recover unsuccessfully. He eventually left the Royal Opera House in 2014 as a result of his injuries.

The Royal Opera House said that it was “surprised and disappointed” by the ruling. In court, its lawyers had argued that ‘acoustic shock’ does not in fact exist, and that the musician had not suffered hearing damage as a result of the performance. Instead, it was claimed, he had naturally developed Meniere’s disease at the same time as being involved in the rehearsal.

High Court judge Justice Nicola Davies did not agree, saying: “I regard the defendant’s contention that Meniere’s disease developed at the rehearsal as stretching the concept of coincidence too far”.

She also disputed the ROH’s claim that a certain amount of hearing loss was justifiable in the pursuit of great art. “Such a stance is unacceptable”, she said. “Musicians are entitled to the protection of the law, as is any other worker”.

In a statement, the ROH said: “We have been at the forefront of industry-wide attempts to protect musicians from the dangers of exposure to significant levels of performance sound, in collaboration with our staff, the Musicians’ Union, acoustic engineers and the Health & Safety Executive”.

“Although this judgment is restricted to our obligations as an employer under the Noise Regulations, it has potentially far-reaching implications for the Royal Opera House and the wider music industry”, it continued.

It added: “We do not believe that the Noise Regulations can be applied in an artistic institution in the same manner as in a factory, not least because in the case of the Royal Opera House, sound is not a by product of an industrial process but is an essential part of the product itself”.

However, Goldscheider’s solicitor, Chris Fry, told the BBC: “This case has huge significance and will send shockwaves across the music business. It has considered itself exempt from the same regulatory requirements as all other sectors because of the artistic nature of its output. This, in our view, has always been a dismissive view from an industry which creates and sells ‘noise’ as a product”.

Damages have not yet been set. The Royal Opera House is considering whether or not to appeal.