Frivolous claims hit travel business

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The Independent Online
SPURIOUS COMPLAINTS by holidaymakers are costing the British travel industry more than pounds 1m a year in legal fees from "trivial or groundless" compensation claims, according to travel firms. Many of the complainants have legal aid or are taken on by law firms on a "no win, no fee" basis.

In one case, a man sued a holiday firm because the air crew failed to give him a boiled sweet on his outgoing flight. His case was thrown out during an arbitration hearing but left the holiday company with a legal bill of several thousand pounds.

In another case a married man claimed damages for personal injury and hurt feelings after the son of a Turkish hotel owner showed him his penis. The judge rejected this part of the claim but accepted that it would have been better to have moved him to another hotel.

In a list of recent frivolous complaints compiled this week by the tour operator Sunworld, one person claimed compensation because of the noise of a couple's love-making, while another complained that Benidorm "was full of Spaniards".

For Britain's leading tour operator, Thompon, last year's overall compensation bill is estimated at pounds 10m.

In recent years it has become much easier for UK holidaymakers to sue tour companies. The Package Tour Regulations, which came into force in 1992, made the tour operator liable for flights, hotels and anything else included in the package. Before 1992, many potential litigants were discouraged from suing a foreign tour company or hotel owner because of the trouble involved in bringing a case abroad.

Ian Hopkinson, a leading holiday litigation partner with the Leeds law firm Mason Bond, said there was no doubt that the number of frivolous claims brought against companies had risen sharply in the past two years.

Mason Bond is advising on a string of overstated claims. Mr Hopkinson said that typically people who had lost a small amount of luggage would put in exaggerated claims for over pounds 3,000. He said the case involving indecent exposure in the Turkish hotel was typical of how some holidaymakers would use any incident to bring a claim.

The firm is currently giving advice to a tour operator that is being sued by a man thrown off a plane for smoking in a non-smoking seat. "He said he was a nervous flyer and so lit up a cigarette. He refused to stop smoking and so when the plane stopped over at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the crew asked the local police to throw him off," Mr Hopkinson said.

Tim Robinson, of the London law firm Nicholson Graham & Jones, said one of his clients, the director of a tour company, recently sat next to two girls on one of his company's package flights and witnessed them filling in their compensation forms on the outbound journey.

According to the Association of British Travel Agents, many cases are not being substantiated. The association blames consumer programmes such as the BBC's Watchdog for raising travellers' expectations of compensation and it plans to issue guidelines that will set out the real costs of a holiday to stop holidaymakers bringing groundless claims or making unreasonable demands for compensation.