What's an actor worth?

Five years after suffering horrific injuries in a car crash, actor Norman Eshley is still battling with Guardian Insurance to agree the payout he is due. Paul Slade investigates
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The Independent Culture
Norman Eshley was travelling as a passenger in a friend's car when it approached a bend on a narrow country road in the Dordogne and collided with a lorry.

Eshley was the only one seriously hurt in the crash. When he was cut from the wreckage, he had a punctured lung, a cracked sternum, a broken shoulder blade and a fractured arm, plus head and neck injuries. French doctors managed to save his life, and repaired as much of the damage as they could. "I was lucky to survive," he says.

About three weeks after the crash, when the initial crisis was over, Eshley returned to the UK and started trying to pick up the threads of his acting career. He is best-known as Jeffrey Fourmile, the next-door- neighbour in vintage sitcom George & Mildred, and has also appeared in series such as Taggart, Brookside and Minder.

But Eshley has always had to top up his television income with theatre work, and this proved very difficult after the accident. "Theatre's been the backbone of my career for 30 years," he says. "Unless it's a series, you can't live on just television.

"I've always needed to go out and work for the RSC and things like that. I suddenly realised that I was not going to work in the theatre any more, and I think I'd also lost my bottle a bit. I tried a play in Nottingham, and I couldn't remember a line."

As it turned out, the crash could not have come at a worse time. Just four months later, Eshley was declared insolvent at Bristol Crown Court after failing to pay overdue taxes. He is now living on the dole.

Eshley's solicitor has put in a claim to Guardian Insurance - the company insuring the crashed car - for about pounds 170,000. Eshley was 48 when the crash happened, and believes this sum is a reasonable amount to compensate him for loss of earnings to the age of 60.

Guardian accepts that the car's driver was at least partially responsible for the accident, that his policy covers injuries to passengers in the car, and that Eshley was an entirely innocent party.

So far, however, all the company has been prepared to give Eshley is an interim payment of pounds 12,000, saying it cannot pay out any more until it has more evidence of Eshley's injuries and of what his earning capacity may have been if the accident had not happened. Earnings power is not easy to establish in the unpredictable business of acting.

Guardian Insurance spokesman David Ross says: "We realised fairly early on that we were, in some way, responsible for this claim. The reason that we're not paying Mr Eshley's claim has nothing to do with liability. It's to do with the amount he is claiming, and the loss of earnings that he's claiming.

"Obviously, Mr Eshley's solicitors are looking to represent his best interests, and will be trying to ensure he gets as much money as possible. We're trying to ensure that the amount of money we pay him is not over- inflated, but is realistic for the losses that he has incurred and will incur."

The claim has been delayed partly because the accident happened in France, Ross adds. Getting accident reports, interviewing witnesses and so on all takes that much longer than it would here. Guardian also asked Eshley to see an independent medical expert in November of last year. But, given that the case had already been dragging on for four years, Eshley concluded this was a delaying tactic, and refused to go.

Ross says: "There are a limited number of medical experts in this country, and it can take between six and eight months to arrange another appointment. By not making an appearance, he's dragged on the settlement of the claim by possibly as much as a year. The onus will always be on Mr Eshley to present evidence that his claim is reasonable."

In January this year, the insurer covering the French lorry wrote to Guardian suggesting that the eventual liability for the accident be split 50/50 between the two companies. Guardian has declined to accept this offer, believing the French insurer should take a bigger share of the blame.

Any final settlement to Eshley will still come from Guardian, which will later recover part of the money paid from the other insurer. But this means the French insurer must also broadly approve the sum involved. Ross says: "Our philosophy would always be to settle the claim as quickly as possible. The longer it goes on, the more money it ultimately costs. But, realistically, we can't settle a claim unless we're sure the amount genuinely reflects the reason for the claim. Presumably, Mr Eshley would still be able to act - albeit he wouldn't be able to act in roles where he has to ride a horse, for example. You have to quantify those amounts."

Eshley says: "My standard of living has just gone way down. I did a couple of small parts last year, but I can't work in the theatre now. I'm not fully-fit for that, and my staple thing was working in the theatre. I'm not 100 per cent fit, and I never will be."

Negotiations between Eshley's solicitors and Guardian's solicitors continue, but the case may eventually have to be settled in court. Eshley's legal bills - to be met by Legal Aid - have already reached pounds 35,000, and Guardian has presumably spent a similar amount.

Eshley has been told the crash cut his life expectancy to just 12 more years - five of which have already passed. "When you're fighting bureaucracy, it's like being covered in marshmallow and trying to fight your way out," he says. "If I'd been given a prison sentence, I'd at least know a release date. But I have none."