A businesswoman who is spearheading a group for insurance reform has warned that play centres in Ireland will all be closed in 12 months because of fraudulent and exaggerated claims.
Linda Murray has vowed to go down fighting after failing to get insurance renewed on her own play centre in Co. Meath, where premiums have spiralled from €2,500 to €16,500 in just five years.
With two claims pending, she has been refused cover renewal and may now have to close Huckleberry's Den in Navan, with the loss of 12 jobs.
She says she has been told by insurance companies that play centres in Ireland are loss-making.
Linda sits on the national board of directors of Alliance for Insurance Reform where she is the spokesperson for some 60 play centres around the country - three of which, she says, have already closed in the last six months.
She is now calling on the Government to fast-track solutions to the insurance crisis, including a new investigative forum, before its too late for the leisure industry here.
"There will be no play centres in Ireland in 12 months because they will be unable to get insurance and it's that simple," she said.
"Actually any business that caters for children of a certain age will be obsolete.
"When I opened up my business six years ago, my premium was €2,500. Then it rose to €16,500 which I managed to pay through a loan and taking a cut in wages but now I can't get a quote because of the way the insurance companies deem the market to be here in Ireland.
"I'm one of many centres that have been refused insurance and now play centres are looking at ways of self-insuring to stay in business. The current system is simply unfair and highly destructive to business. The only winners in this whole game are claimants and the legal teams."
She said that up to 20,000 children used her centre without incident last year.
She said: "I pay for an external review of my equipment, health and safety and separate maintenance each year.
"I run a great centre with amazing staff and customers. Like other centres I’ve had kids that have fell, bumped heads or come off slides awkwardly but the majority of parents know kids are kids and these things happen, especially as they see our business isn’t negligent - but it only takes one questionable claim to put everything at risk
"I would like to plead with people: Do not claim off a business unless they have been truly negligent.
"My childhood was full of scrapes, bruises and a broken elbow but the last thing my parents would have done was firstly blame someone else and try and get money for it!”
"I'm a mum of two small children so if I am negligible in any way, of course, people have a right of recourse if anyone gets injured but don’t claim from a business because your child was there having fun and tripped or fell which can happen anywhere.
"The leisure insurer in the UK has pulled two-thirds of its brokers out of Ireland in the last two months because of losses. We are now one of the most litigious countries in Europe.
"The play centres in our group forked out over €1.5m in premiums last year which would be a hefty market to tap into for a new insurer. I know play centres that are playing €50,000 a year and one in a city that pay €135,000 for the year."
Linda, who is a member of the Insurance Reform Committee to have lobbied the Government, says that although changes have started, they are not happening fast enough to make a difference.
"As part of the Alliance for Insurance Reform we have 10 ‘Asks’ which we believe will make a big difference to the current situation of hefty insurance hikes.
"A new act to come into force on January 28th asks a plaintiff to let the business know within a month of their personal injuries action. Judges are now obliged to take failure to inform in that time period into account.
"This is now in line with the data protection legislation which allows general CCTV footage to be retained for one month.
"It's a first step, but things need to start happening faster. We need to set up the garda insurance fraud unit as a matter of urgency and reduce the huge awards for minor, fully recovered soft tissue injuries from €20,000 currently.
"Even though innocence may be recorded on CCTV, I believe insurance companies often settle out of court to avoid hefty legal fees and so that footage is never shown in a court. In fact 6% of all claims only make it to court.
"In a country where obesity in children is a problem, we are stopping them from running about and playing in case they hurt themselves and a claim is lodged.
"Kids like running, kids fall and accidents happen."
Linda has vowed, however, to keep looking for some way to keep her business open and avoid any job losses.
"All of my staff rely on their jobs to pay their mortgages, rent and college fees.
"I would plead with any parent whose child is hurt through play in any centre or playground to think about the effect that claiming on a business has.
"You may think a company has insurance but every claim sends premiums rocketing, small businesses plummeting and prices sky-rocketing," she concluded.