It is not unusual these days to read in the press that voluntary organisations or schools are no longer prepared to run a long-standing annual event for fear of being sued. Or that an individual has been sued for injuries caused by helping someone in danger and at risk of injury. So has the “compensation culture” really got so bad that events or trips are now considered too risky to organise?
“Yes”, says our Government. We must stop the compensation culture. Spurious personal injury claims must be stopped. Ill-conceived claims against employers should stop.
And to stop such claims, the Government are proposing to bring in new legislation – the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill – to reassure volunteers and others that the courts will consider their actions in the event that they are sued for negligence and/or breach of a statutory duty. The current law will not change. Instead, the Government states that the new legislation will build upon current case law by providing reassurance to employers and to those who run voluntary organisations, for example, that it will be more difficult for negligence claims against them to succeed.
It is fair to say that some personal injury solicitors have, over the past, encouraged individuals to bring claims and of course, the press take great delight in running such stories which simply serve to whip up the frenzy of our “compensation culture”. However, as a result of recent reforms in personal injury law together with the fact that courts already deal with personal injury claims in a robust way, claimants in reality are now more likely only to bring claims where there is a genuine issue of negligence. Arguably therefore, there is no need for further legislation and it is anticipated that the proposed legislation will add very little, if anything, to the current state of play. Indeed, it is likely to cause confusion and uncertainty. The words used is vague and ambiguous – “for the benefit of society”, “a generally responsible approach” and “acting heroically” are difficult to define. “And crucially, there are significant concerns that the wrong message will be sent out”, says Vicki Wright, a specialist Personal Injury Solicitor with Swain & Co. As reported by The Sunday Telegraph, the Government is keen to “slay the health and safety culture”. Take the work environment, for example. Whilst some may view our health and safety legislation as a mass of red tape, the fact remains that the number of deaths at work have reduced dramatically over the years. This is good – arguably, it could be better. However, accidents will happen but if there is no negligence, there is no claim.
And if there is negligence, should the employee who may have suffered very serious injuries be denied compensation simply because the employer was able to show “a generally responsible approach”? In the future, therefore, under the new legislation, an employer may feel able to relax his obligations under Health and Safety law.
Further, should a child on a school trip be denied compensation because injury was caused by someone “acting heroically”? Conversely, will the “hero” be reckless in his actions knowing that he will escape liability?
Vicki Wright concludes, “It is sad that individuals may not be inclined to help others who are in danger or that voluntary organisations do not run trips for fear of being sued but in my view, the proposed legislation will not solve this problem. Regretfully, it could simply make things worse”.