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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Sues you Sir!
Have you had an accident, suffered an injury, been hurt at work? Then you could sue, the adverts tell you. The Money Programme investigates Britain's booming compensation culture.

Britons laughed in 1999 when they heard that the Mayor of Philadelphia was planning to sue tobacco companies for the cost of putting out fires caused by discarded cigarettes. "Only in America," they thought.

But not any more.

Compensation culture has arrived in the UK. A Money Programme investigation reveals that it's already a 14bn market and growing fast. Not only that, we're all paying for it, in the shape of higher taxes and higher insurance premiums.

Car insurance has risen on average by 40% over the past year and household insurance by 15%.

In the public sector, where the bulk of claims are being filed because authorities are keener to settle than risk ending up in court, teachers fret about supervising school sports and doctors worry about being sued when operations go awry. Elsewhere, companies have to lay off workers when they are turned down for employers' liability insurance.

No win, no fee

The boom in compensation culture follows several changes in the law, not least a move that allows law firms to provide services on a 'no win, no fee' basis.

That alone produced a rash of claims management companies who, critics say, now openly tout for business on high streets up and down the land, encouraging people to make spurious claims for what sometimes amounts to little more than inconvenience rather than any serious injury.

Kevin O'Connor, managing director of Ashley Ainsworth, a claims management company, rejects criticism of his tactics.

"We're very proud of the way we help people. A successful conclusion to the case means we've made someone's life just that little bit more bearable from their suffering through no fault of their own."

Blame culture

Have you suffered an injury? If so, you could claim compensation; we've all seen the adverts but now we're experiencing the downside - as Annette Martin can testify.

She gave a dinner party during which a chair gave way, resulting in a minor graze on a friend's lower back. Annette helped put some antiseptic cream on the scrape and thought no more of it.

She subsequently received a lawyer's letter demanding compensation for personal injury caused by her negligence under the Occupiers' Liability Act. Annette's friend claimed their insurer had insisted on the letter, but whatever the basis for it, it had one lasting and perhaps unintended consequence:

"At the end of the day, I've lost a friend," says Annette. But lost friendships are not the only side-effect of compensation culture.

Job losses

Dan Rowson failed to find another insurer for his engineering company's fettling operations, and he had to shut that part of the business, throwing part of his skilled workforce onto the dole.

"We had a handful of claims brought against us and our insurance company has said it will no longer insure us," says Rowson.

No one disputes the rights of injured workers to claim for personal injury and other costs caused by accidents at work - but critics argue that many of the claims are spurious or have dubious merit.

Mike Molloy is suing Lincoln Cathedral after his chorister daughter, Polyanna, was effectively passed over for the right to senior chorister status.

Don't be downtrodden?

"Society is full of people who put up with all sorts of things and never do anything about it. I think I'm right in teaching my children not to put up with any form of being trampled on," says Polyanna's father.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Molloys' case, NHS surgeon Peter McDonald says that compensation culture will cost everyone more in the long run:

"Any money spent on compensation in my work is money lost to the health service, money that could be spent on more nurses, doctors and improved facilities. Not all claims are genuinely needy, a lot are spurious. There is no evidence doctors are practising less safely than they used to, nevertheless we're seeing a tidal wave of claims."

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 4 December 2002.

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