Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Fundamental dishonesty

It is said increasingly that we are living in a post-truth age, particularly with reference to modern politics.  Fairness and fact are usurped by false rumour and appeals to emotions.

Many solicitors dealing with personal injury claims will tell you that the insurance industry is a far from shining example of this murky culture.  We say you can’t trust them.

They have convinced recent past governments, and much of the population, that injured people pursuing claims for compensation are largely if not entirely fraudsters and that these claims, and the costs associated with them, are responsible for relentless rises in motor insurance costs.

The headline claims are untrue.  This has more to do with the impact on profits and capital reserves of depressed interest rates over a long period of time.  See Smokescreen for more on this.

Recently we’ve had yet further headlines about the rising cost of policy premia, the average expected to hit £700, despite all the so called curbs on costs that the industry duped a supine government to implement.  Still insurers insist that whiplash isn’t real and inflate their statistics for “fraud” by the inclusion of routinely abandoned claims. 

The more audacious the yarn, the bigger the impact – see Make the lie big.  It all seems to be one way traffic.  No wonder.  The Association of British Insurers (“ABI”) is a well organised and vocal body representing huge and powerful corporations.  It goes without saying they are well funded – with our money.  We pay them to mislead us - and then pay them more.

We are hearing now about the reported successes of insurers in defeating claims for what is known as fundamental dishonesty.  This was another deterrent introduced a little over three years ago whereby the penalties for false claims and exaggeration were increased substantially.

It’s quite right of course that people who pursue fraudulent claims should face the consequences but the latest rules have created a climate where ordinary decent people pursuing genuine claims for compensation to which they are entitled as a matter of law are terrified of the risks.

Leading defendant law firms now boast about the number of cases they have seen off by alleging fundamental dishonesty and we know that a large section of the population would not now be inclined to pursue a claim following an accident because of the stigma and fears of this so called “compensation culture”.

Insurers portray themselves as the white knights on the battlefield, protecting the premium-paying public from these abuses.  They tell the world that it would be fine to change the rules so that all these expensive claimant lawyers will drop out of the equation.  Genuine victims, they say, have nothing to fear and can trust insurers to deal fairly with them and seek that they receive that to which they are entitled by law.

Believe that?

If so, you may want to do something about those long, furry ears.

For an example of how fair and virtuous liability insurers can be, see the report that we posted on our website earlier this month in the case of McLachlan v South Somerset District Council.  It’s a heart-warming tale of justice being done, despite the skulduggery of the Dark Side. 

The success or failure of public liability claims often depends on whether or not there have been similar accidents in the past which alerted the defendant to a need for action.  You will see in the website report one of the highlights of the trial which was the judge’s question “How many people have to injure themselves before you realise there is a design issue?”

So, you don’t have to be any sort of expert in this field to understand that if the knowledge and existence of previous and similar claims can be suppressed and concealed, it’s going to be far more difficult for the claimant to succeed.

In this case, the District Council’s insurers lied to us repeatedly about the history of this car park.  They did so in correspondence, in answer to pointed questions and despite at one stage information from us that we already knew of at least one claim.

We were told in a letter of 28 June 2014 from insurers that:

        “All other users of the car park negotiated the area without incident”.

We asked them:-
“Are you referring to a particular space in time and group of users or the world at large at any time during which the kerbs have been in place?”.
Claims handler Charlotte wrote to tell us on 18 July 2014:-
“We can confirm that we are saying there were no other incidents prior to your client’s accident”.
We were at that stage already on to the fact that the “walking wounded” often limped to the nearest source of assistance, the Octagon Theatre – see the headline to the report. 

Ironically, the defendant council as owner and control of the Theatre where – according to the manager who gave evidence at the trial – so many victims reported, produced no records of any such matters during the course of the proceedings. False disclosure statements, anyone?

We made that point to them in a letter dated 6 February 2015.  We were subsequently told, again, on 1 July 2015:-
“We note your comments, we can confirm that our insured are not aware of any other similar incidents or complaints in relation to this matter”.
In fact there had been at least eight prior incidents. The complaint by one victim, who was injured approximately five years before our client fell, was presented by then Somerset County Councillor Cathy Bakewell MBE.  In answer to correspondence from the Head of Engineering and Property at the District Council, she wrote:-
“Might the council consider highlighting the edges of the kerbs in order to make them stand out more, especially in the evening? Whilst there is lighting in the car park, it does not illuminate the kerbs. Might it be possible for the council to consider some additional lighting to assist pedestrians to avoid tripping over the kerbs?”
The trial judge said, “It is difficult to think of a starker picture and I find it mind-boggling that the defendant did nothing”.

But the key point of this piece is to highlight the seemingly fearless – yet at times inept – attempt to conceal the truth, with deliberate false statements about the history of the matter that was crucial to success or failure of a meritorious claim.

Injury claimants who tell lies in support of their fraudulent claims face the real prospect of going to prison.

Solicitors who connive at such claims face the risk of being struck-off, losing their livelihood and perhaps joining their clients behind bars.

What happens to insurance companies and their employees who tell lies in support of their case?

Nothing.  They can pick up the next file and do it all over again.


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