Mouth burnt on a pie? Join the rush to sue

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:32

Whether it's claiming damages for a burnt mouth from eating an apple pie, or a burglar suing his victim, more Britons are resorting to the law to settle disputes.

Although we may be a long way behind the United States, where writs are fired off "like six shooters in the Wild West", the headlong rush to the courts has the lawyers rubbing their hands with glee.

The decision by Cyril Smith, the 59-year-old cancer patient from Portsmouth who is suing his health authority because it - wrongly - diagnosed that he had only three months to live, came as no great surprise to many litigation experts. Some claim that the number of such medical negligence cases is increasing by 15 per cent a year.

Mark Cran QC, who has numbered George Michael among his clients, says too many people resort to law whenever they suffer a mishap. "They have come to believe that whatever goes wrong in life is someone's fault and that there is no such thing as bad luck. Something is amiss ."

The Law Society's Suzanne Burn pointed out that while overall litigation is not rising, the number of personal injury, professional negligence and medical negligence suits is climbing. "There is a growing awareness among consumers of their rights."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that last year's new "no win no fee" rules, whereby lawyers and clients can agree to waive payment unless a case is successful, have boosted the trend towards American-style litigation. "The system does appear to be proving popular," said Ms Burn.

Moreover, research suggests that only a small percentage of potential negligence cases are ever taken up in this country - leaving plenty of scope for more actions.

Fraser Whitehead, a senior partner with law firm Russell, Jones and Walker, which specialises in negligence cases, said the apparent growth in legal action was explained by a shift from "unfashionable" cases such as factory and mine accidents to the more headline-catching actions such as those involving stress.

For many, he said, there was no alternative to law as insurance firms got more cost- conscious and the legal system tried to speed up court cases.

A growth area has been against public authorities. Last year the Metropolitan police was ordered by courts to pay pounds 267,000 in compensation to victims of ill-treatment. This year already the figure is nearly pounds 1million.

John Mead, a claims manager for Zurich Municipal, which specialises in insuring local authorities, said there was a marked increase in "bizarre" legal actions.

Many observers point to the rising legal aid bill which has funded many negligence actions. In 1991-2 the net legal aid cost in medical negligence cases in England was pounds 5.9m; by 1993-4 it had leapt to pounds 21.9m.

The Hillsborough police

Fourteen police officers were recently awarded pounds 1.2 million damages between them for the anguish they suffered policing the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, which left 96 fans dead.

The figure, which was reached in an out-of-court settlement with South Yorkshire police just one hour before a court hearing, was to compensate for the post-traumatic stress suffered by the officers.

The 14 were among those who had gone through the fencing to try to rescue fans who were dying and had been trampled upon. Other officers who did not enter the area where fans were crushed lost a similar claim

Relatives of the dead fans, some of whom had received nothing or had been compensated for their loss with sums as low as pounds 2,000, were angry at the scale of the settlement, pointing out that the 14 had chosen to become police officers.

The scalding apple pie

Darren Miles, aged 28, won pounds 750 compensation from McDonald's last September after the hot filling from an apple pie fell out and scalded his arm.

Mr Miles, from Andover, Hampshire, fears he may be permanently scarred as a result of the accident. His lawyer, Aftab Ahmed, said that the pie had not been fit for its purpose - to be eaten immediately after sale.

"Had a child been injured in this way it could have been a lot more serious." McDonald's settled out of court without accepting liability. In the US two years ago an 81-year-old woman won pounds 1.8million, later reduced to pounds 320,000, for burns suffered after opening a cup of McDonald's coffee.

The burglary victim

A burglary victim was told by a court to pay pounds 4,000 damages - to the burglar.

Allotment holder Ted Newbery, 82, shot intruder Mark Revill in his shed near Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Revill was later jailed for the burglary but sued Newbery for damages, claiming that the injuries had been traumatic and had "ruined his life".

A judge awarded pounds 4,033 damages, an amount which would have been larger if the burglar had not been partly to blame. Mr Justice Rougier commented: "To poke a shotgun through a hole and fire it with the knowledge thatt here are people outside constitutes negligence to the point of recklessness."

The stressed worker

Social worker John Walker was awarded pounds 175,000 in compensation last year when he successfully claimed that his employers were negligent in subjecting him to too much stress.

As a result of the stress, Mr Walker had two nervous breakdowns and had to take early retirement.

The settlement was reached between Mr Walker and his employers, Northumberland County Council, after a High Court judgement and before a Court of Appeal hearing.

It was the first successful civil action to relate to how much stress may be regarded as a reasonable amount in the case of employment.

A spokesman for Mr Walker's union, Unison, said it was a landmark case: "When we meet employers to discuss these matters, I believe they will now treat us much more seriously."

The rugby referee

Rugby referee Michael Nolan set a precedent when a High Court judge ruled in April that he was liable for a damages claim from a young player who was paralysed when a scrum collapsed in a match he was controlling.

Mr Justice Curtis held that Mr Nolan had "failed to exercise reasonable care and skill" in preventing the scrum collapses which occurred during the game.

The court had heard that the game was niggly and over-violent and suffered an "abnormally high" number of such collapses.

Successful litigant Ben Smoldon, now 21, was crippled for life by the incident.

The holiday pests

In June last year, two British women were awarded pounds 3,000 in damages and costs after they were pestered and sexually harassed by the staff at a hotel in Tunisia.

The two women, Tracey and Rachel Heald, who were awarded the money by a county court for "psychological injury".

What made the case unique was that the pair had sued the tour operators, Thomson, after they returned to Britain.

Both were on their first trip abroad and they said they suffered unwanted attention and an obscene gesture during the holiday.

Lawyers for the women welcomed the verdict, saying it forced holiday operators to be more careful in their choice of accommodation.

However, British tour operators are now wondering just how far their liability extends and what they can do to protect themselves.

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