About time claims were on the slide

Maria Bailey: Making a claim after falling off a swing in a hotel in Harcourt St in Dublin. She was allegedly holding items in both her hands when she fell. Picture: RollingNews.ie

Two little vignettes in the life of a gormless hack. Many moons ago in the shallows of family life, my wife, the first infant, and I holidayed in Lanzarote. We hired a car. One day we were driving along looking for somewhere. These were the pre-Google Maps days.

Suddenly, I veered towards the centre of the road and tipped off a man who was riding past on small motorbike. He skidded, the bike lost balance, and he tumbled to the street.

In the ensuing seconds a dark vista opened up in my mind. What have I done? This guy looks alright but he will want money. Will I be hauled off to jail until I cough up? What have I done to my family? He’s going to make a claim. He’s going to make a claim.

The man picked himself up and looked rightly cheesed off.

He made a few gestures with his hands and let fly with some Spanish that was beyond me.

Then he mounted his bike and sped away. I tried to stop trembling, got back in the car, and took off furtively before he had a change of mind.

The second tale is from a newsroom also many moons ago. A colleague popped out for a takeaway salad and brought it back to her desk.

Then she made a noise of disgust. She had discovered something alien from the insect world on her lettuce.

A legal practitioner doing work for the paper was in the room at the time.

His ears pricked up and he came over to her. You have a claim there, he said. The colleague didn’t claim. I don’t know whether she ever went back to that shop either though.

Both these instances came to mind this week when Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey found herself front and centre in relation to our alleged claims culture.

Ms Bailey is making a claim after falling off a swing in a hotel in Harcourt St in Dublin. She was allegedly holding items in both her hands when she fell. The hotel reportedly sent her a cheque for her medical bill but she sent it back.

Ms Bailey's claim is being handled by Madigan Solicitors - the family law firm of Fine Gael Culture Minister Josepha Madigan.

The minister has removed herself from the day-to-day running of the firm since she entered politics. Still, it’s good to see that the claim is being kept in the Fine Gael family.

Notably, the hotel is not in Ms Bailey’s Dun Laoghaire constituency. We can only speculate as to whether she would be taking this action if an identical set of circumstances had occurred in an establishment in the heart of the community she represents. What if she had fallen from a swing in a hostelry where she hosted political gatherings? Would she, in such an instance, have accepted a cheque for her medical expenses?

The case was first mentioned by Michael McDowell in the Seanad. The senator said that as somebody who was careless enough to lose his Dáil seat three times, he was struck by a report about a TD “who lost her seat while on a swing in a hotel in Harcourt St”.

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin threw in his tuppence worth, declaring:

Most people expect that once you are over the age of four you can hold onto the ropes and don’t need adult supervision.

Ms Bailey is perfectly entitled to assert her rights but she might need some adult supervision when it comes to political judgement.

She is making her claim at a time when the Government she supports is attempting to tackle a claims culture. Rocketing insurance premiums are torpedoing some small businesses and exercising a stranglehold on others.

A recent report into personal injuries highlighted that whiplash injuries in this country receive awards four times greater than in the neighbouring jurisdiction. The Government is currently processing through the Oireachtas the Judicial Council Bill aimed at reining in inflated awards.

The insurance industry is known for price gouging but it can hide behind a culture in which the most innocuous accident leads to huge costs. Serious accidents and genuine negligence are matters that require commensurate compensation. But the prevailing culture has ensured that reason and proportionality no longer feature in a large raft of claims.

In such a culture it’s no wonder that exaggeration is common and that accidents are sometimes staged, the latter having been a feature of a number of court cases in recent months.

What is it about the Irish and claims? Some of it may be ascribed to a strain of the post-colonial psyche in which the little guy sees him or herself as striking out for a minor victory against large forces like the State or business. After all, winning a few euro on a claim doesn’t hurt anybody as the insurance takes care of it. And, the self-justifying logic dictates, isn’t that what the insurance business is there for?

Apart from that, though, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that most of the cultural imperative has to do with the legal system.

All accidents are immediately viewed as an opportunity. There is no risk in making a claim as there would be to most other forms of litigation. It’s a one-way bet.

Voices in the legal business have suggested that what we have in this country is actually an accident culture. There is scant evidence to back up such an assertion.

What is beyond dispute is that the claims culture makes premium jam for the legal business.

Most of the time fees ensure that cases are not worth defending and are therefore settled, including a decent helping of jam for all legal practitioners involved.

If awards from judges weren’t so high there mightn’t be as much jam to go around for the professionals. Judges don’t make money out of personal injuries but before ascending to the bench many of them had feasted on the jam to a greater or lesser extent.

Perhaps some judges find it difficult to escape their own post-jam psyche. To be fair, there has been, in recent months a detectable change of tone from some judges in the area, as if they are getting in tune with an evolving political and public mood.

There is a will to tackle the culture, but doing so will be difficult and slow. It will take a lot of buy-in from the public to re-calibrate attitudes towards personal injuries.

It will also require the insurance industry to provide more transparency in how it calculates premiums.

In such a milieu, leadership will be at a premium.

For this democracy usually turns to its elected representatives.

In that context, it might be best if politicians, for the foreseeable future, avoid swings and roundabouts and for God’s sake please stay away from climbing frames.

This article was amended on May 30.

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