Legal cover is no panacea: Insurance is often inadequate protection, writes Maria Scott

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MARIE PARNES, a 30-year-old credit controller from west London, has been offered pounds 2,000 compensation by the Hilton hotel group after she was sexually assaulted in the Ramses Hilton in Cairo.

The offer may sound like a victory for Ms Parnes but she has turned it down, as she believes the amount insulting considering the nature of the attack. She has now formally dropped her claim against Hilton, with an agreement that it will pay her costs while she pays hers, because he feels she cannot afford to continue her two-year legal fight against the company, part of the Ladbroke Group.

So far all her legal bills, of more than pounds 12,000, have been paid by legal expenses cover provided by the travel insurance policy she bought before her holiday in Egypt two years ago.

But a large chunk of the payment was won only after a dispute with the companies providing the cover and a complaint to the Insurance Ombudsman.

She is unable to claim any more money from her policy.

The pursuit of her claim has added hugely to the original trauma of the assault.

Ms Parnes's experience is a cautionary tale for anyone considering seeking legal redress for injuries abroad. Legal expenses insurance may help but is not a panacea.

Ms Parnes was attacked in her hotel room. It was the last day of a package tour holiday and she and her boyfriend were about to leave. 'Our room was on the 30th floor. There was a fire escape facing the bedroom door and there was no press-bar so it gave access to the hotel.'

Her boyfriend intervened while Ms Parnes tried to contact reception and an emergency number for guests. She was unable to raise a response.

She hit her attacker and ran into the corridor screaming.

After returning to England she was examined by a doctor who confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted and she consulted a respected London law firm, DJ Freeman, which was recommended by a friend.

Freeman's opinion was that she had grounds to pursue the Hilton for alleged negligence on the grounds that security was lax in allowing the attacker to get into the hotel.

She filed a claim under her Bishopsgate TravelCare Extra policy. This gave legal expenses cover of up to pounds 10,000.

This section of the policy was underwritten by Avon Insurance but the administration of claims was undertaken by Countrywide Assistance.

Countrywide agreed to support Ms Parnes's claim and proceedings were started in Watford County Court in February 1992.

In January this year Hilton launched a 'striking out' action claiming that Ms Parnes's action was not valid in Egyptian law and that, therefore, the claim could not be pursued.

The Hilton lost the case and the judge directed that the matter proceed to trial although last month the Hilton made its offer of an out-of court settlement of pounds 2,000. Ms Parnes has now formally dropped her claim.

By the time the matter was ordered to trial, however, Ms Parnes was involved in a wrangle with Countrywide Assistance over how much the company would pay out to cover her dispute. It was clear the pounds 10,000 limit would not be enough to pay for the case.

Ms Parnes and her solicitor, Ann Robson of DJ Freeman, felt that Countrywide was partly to blame for the costs run up so far. There were delays in responding to Freeman's inquiries and Countrywide took up time querying Freeman's costs.

Ms Parnes complained to the Ombudsman, claiming that the company had prejudiced her ability to pursue the case and that 40 per cent of the bill run up so far was due to its inefficiency.

The Ombudsman's office discussed the case with the insurers and Avon volunteered to make an ex gratia payment of pounds 3,000, on top of the policy's limit. Avon said this did not imply the company was unhappy with Countrywide's handling of the case. Countrywide strongly defended its actions and the need to monitor the costs of such claims. Gary King, managing director, said he had stressed to Ms Parnes and her solicitor that the policy would not pay out an unlimited amount of money.

Ms Robson at DJ Freeman said Countrywide had intimated it might be prepared to pay out more than pounds 10,000 on the case, although Mr King said he could not imagine the company giving such an indication.

Ms Robson said: 'Obviously we are more expensive than a high street firm and Countrywide knew this when they instructed us.'

She added that although she was aware Ms Parnes's policy was for a maximum of pounds 10,000, she believed there was a reasonable chance the case would be settled before this was exhausted.

She said: 'People should be very aware when they take out insurance cover that they know what they are getting.'

With legal claims they may have to foot some of the bill themselves.

Hilton said it did not wish to comment on Ms Parnes's case.

(Photograph omitted)

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