Hoping to gerra lucky break: Dubious accident 'victims' find the streets of Dublin paved with gold, writes Alan Murdoch

Click to follow
ON THE face of it, it's an open and shut case: careless workmen leave a hole in the pavement unprotected by barrier or warning bollards; male athlete ambles by, his mind on higher things, falls into hole, thus breaking leg. Result: negligent public body faces hefty damages. But there is a twist. A witness for the defence emerges, who saw it differently in one detail. The 'victim', he said, had not exactly fallen into the hole. Rather he had been carried there groaning from a nearby sports field by friends who then lowered him gently into it.

Another action collapsed after lawyers for a public utility obtained access to the alleged accident victim's health records. As a solicitor caustically put it, 'they showed a medical history of falling down holes.'

In Cork a case thrown out of court in 1991 involved Edward O'Leary, who claimed he was a victim of whiplash injuries after a car crash. The 'crash' turned out to be the slightest of bumps. The judge called O'Leary 'a professional litigant', noting he had been paid almost Ir pounds 59,000 in 10 injury claims since 1983 after 'accidentally' falling down in roads, restaurants, hotels, and shops.

A woman in another case told the court she had no objection to paying for damage to the stationary car she had driven into. She did object to stumping up damages for injuries to the alleged passengers. The car, she pointed out, had been empty when she hit it.

Enough claims have come before Dublin courts from the same families in recent years to suggest wobbly legs may be hereditary. After the umpteenth accident claim from one such clan a judge suggested a consistently hazardous spot should henceforth be renamed in their honour.

Local legends include the quick-witted youth who, after seeing a multiple shunt of Dublin buses, leapt on board one and lay on the floor, but not before picking up a discarded ticket, vital evidence for starting a claim. It was not his day. Genuine passengers, concerned lest this interloper undermine their own claims, blew the whistle on him.

In an effort to halt the explosion in insurance claims in Irish courts, a cap on damages awards for pain and suffering is among reforms being proposed by Ireland's commerce minister, Seamus Brennan. Pain and suffering awards are 48 per cent higher in Ireland than in Britain, and 78 per cent above the European Community average. They make up 75 per cent of the value of settlements.

Mr Brennan has promised to tackle what is widely seen as a legal shambles that is wide open to fraud and organised crime. His concern is partly to reduce Ireland's extraordinarily high level of insurance premiums, particularly in motor cover, which business organisations complain inflate costs and therefore unemployment.

The proposed reforms will also help to curb spiralling pay-outs by city councils, private businesses and public utilities. The largest category of claims relates to domestic accidents occurring in council houses for which Dublin Corporation bears liability.

Inside collusion in fabricating claims is suspected. Telecom Eireann is reported to be investigating allegations that one of its drivers repeatedly arranged to crash his company van into friends' taxis, thereby setting up a damages goldmine for them. The Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland has identified 30 traffic accidents since 1989 that were deliberately staged as part of fraudulent insurance claims.

Dublin citizens look on these shameless fiddles with ambivalence. No one denies the amusing side ('Will I gerra claim outa it?' is now a comic cliche), but neither is the blatant parasitism of fraudulent claims lost on taxpayers footing the final bill. Last year Dublin Corporation paid out Ir pounds 6m ( pounds 6.16m sterling) in damages and costs to accident victims, a rise of 50 per cent on the previous year. The cost of settling all claims in progress is put at Ir pounds 27m.

Both councillors and legal experts believe a substantial part of this sum is being obtained by fraud. Judge Frank Martin is one who is angry and alarmed at the number of false claims coming before his court. He recently said in open court that many were orchestrated by a man called 'Rossi' Walsh, who, he said, 'runs a 'dial-a-witness' service. The sooner the authorities do something about it, the better.'

His remarks came as he dismissed claims by three Dubliners who had sued Dublin Gas after their car supposedly went into an unmarked hole left by a repair crew. It was put to them that they drove the car slowly and deliberately into the hole before calling an ambulance.

One unofficial legal adviser, clutching a volume on Irish civil law, has become a familiar sight around the city's domed Four Courts ('The Four Goldmines' in local vernacular). Barristers involved in legitimate injury work suspect that criminal operators are charging for unofficial legal work in preparing bogus cases.

Ivor Callely, a Dublin MP and city councillor, says that the easy pickings to be had from false claims have emboldened racketeers. The 'victims' may not always be the real instigators. 'People who are vulnerable are being pressed to make a claim,' he says. 'If necessary the location is chosen for them, and they'll have a photographer on standby.'

One barrister who is experienced in genuine accident litigation is convinced that criminals operate a rota for who is to have the next 'fall'. They scan city streets and buildings for plausible locations, he says. Medical consultants retained by insurers say they encounter widespread faking of evidence by 'victims' in examinations to determine the extent of injury suffered. Some have devised their own subtle methods of getting the 'sufferer' unwittingly to achieve movement of joints that their alleged injuries would, if genuine, make impossible.

A recent paper in the Irish Medical Journal on whiplash injury after road accidents concluded that assessment of its symptoms was so difficult that 'any scoring point (ie, symptom that strengthened the case) could be validated in court by reference to published literature'.

The report noted that there were 10 times as many whiplash injuries in the Australian state of Victoria as in the whole of New Zealand. The author, Dublin consultant Michael Kelly, of the Blackrock Clinic, pointed out that these areas had similar accident statistics, but compensation payments were three times higher in Victoria. Legislative changes in 1986/7 affecting the size of injury awards led to a dramatic decline in whiplash claims there.

Mr Callely believes some solicitors encourage doubtful claims by advertising their services on a 'no foal, no fee' basis, stressing '90 per cent success rates'. Legal costs and medical fees last year accounted for Ir pounds 1.7m of the Ir pounds 6m paid out by Dublin Corporation, with city bus, gas and electricity companies facing their own high bills. Irish accident lawyers have been advertising daily on radio during the main morning news bulletin. Such extensive promotion (also in Yellow Pages and even on the backs of buses) has, Mr Callely believes, inflated the number of claims. Last year Dublin Corporation received 872 personal injury claims for damages.

Amid accusations of legal 'touting', a corporation spokesman said recently that Irish lawyers' record in this field was 'ethically questionable'. The Irish Law Society denies wholesale collusion by solicitors in boosting claims; and responded by accusing city managers of 'megaphone diplomacy'.

Experienced lawyers say some of the most violent elements in Dublin crime are involved in orchestrating fraudulent claims. They include figures suspected of two gangland killings, armed robberies, arson, and insurance fires financed by property owners making false claims.

Dublin Corporation is now forming a claims section to settle clearly valid claims more quickly. This will end long delays which, its own overstretched legal staff admit, have added massively to legal costs. Collaboration with the utilities on a common computer database will help to identify the families and addresses involved in repeated claims. 'Before this, the only way of monitoring it was by relying on colleagues' memories, or by overhearing the odd name coming up in conversation,' says a former corporation lawyer.

This will break the hearts of one litigious Dublin family who found the city's streets were truly paved with gold. Its head was finally rumbled in a fake fall claim after more than Ir pounds 15,000 had been handed over in carbon-copy claims to his two brothers, his sister, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, cousin and nephew.

(Photograph omitted)