Thursday, 21 February 2013

A Spotlight on 'Compensation Culture'

The case of Baljinder Kaur Gill, who was killed in a staged crash-for-cash accident, shines a light on the reality of the so-called 'compensation culture'.

Here we have a tragic incident in which perpetrators of a criminal enterprise have justly been given lengthy custodial sentences. Four men - Radoslaw Bielawski, Jacek Kowalczyk, Andrzez Skowron and Artur Okrutny - concocted a plan which would see a VW Passat and an Audi A3 collide with an innocent Ford Transit van on the A40 in Buckinghamshire. Their intention was to claim personal injury compensation.

A Disgraceful Scheme
The men put their plan into operation on the evening of 11 June, 2011 - to disastrous effect. Gill, 34, died when her Ford Fiesta, which had been hit by one of the men's vehicles, was hit again by a Renault Trafic van. Her car had been stationary in the fast lane of the A40 after she had been unable to avoid crashing into the Ford Transit van, whose experienced driver had commendably managed to avoid hitting the men’s vehicles. Ms Gill left her car with its hazard lights flashing but returned to retrieve some possessions. Her car was then hit by the Renault van in what Reading Crown Court heard was "an explosion of metal, glass and dust". Ms Gill was fatally injured at the scene.

The men stood to gain £20,000, having targeted the Transit van because they knew it would have valid insurance. Their ill-conceived and disgraceful scheme caused harm not only to Ms Gill. Probably because of 'rubber-necking', there was a pile-up on the opposite carriageway. It left another person seriously injured.

Just Sentences
Bielawski, 24 and Kowalczyk, 32 were both jailed for a total of 10 years and three months for conspiracy to commit fraud, causing death by dangerous driving and conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice. Skowron, 25 who was to be paid an undisclosed fee for taking part in the scam, was jailed for 10 years. Okrutny, 23 who was to be paid £300, was not present at the crashes but was jailed for 12 months.

Mr Justice Sweeney was right to pass stringent sentences on the men, in what he noted was "the first such enterprise to result in a death to come before the courts".

Every right-thinking person would understand and most would welcome the sentences, and applaud the investigative work of the police.

I hope we can rid society of this evil. This case demonstrates that fraudulent activity exists, just as  the ensuing  tragedy shows just how terrible the full consequences can be. But I also hope that those who maintain that we inhabit a world in which spurious claim follows spurious claim will take stock and pause for thought.

Time for a Common Sense look at 'Compensation Culture'
Back in 2005, Tony Blair gave a speech in which he called for "common sense culture, not compensation culture". In a sound-bite quickly picked up by the media, Blair said: "Public bodies, in fear of litigation, act in highly risk-averse and peculiar ways. We have had a local authority removing hanging baskets for fear that they might fall on someone's head, even though no such accident had occurred in the 18 years they had been hanging there."

Blair helped set in train a backlash against a fundamental tenet of tort law: that the claimant should, if he or she has proved negligence and causation, and if the resultant damage is not too remote, be placed in the position he or she would have been in had the accident or injury not occurred. Ever since, the media has delighted in stories of absurd claims supposedly brought by solicitors acting unethically and claimants on the make.

The truth is otherwise. The vast majority of claimants are honest  and their solicitors continue to adhere to the basic principles of tort law: if someone has been injured, they take up the cudgels on that person's behalf and seek redress, which as a matter of law is always intended to restore the position and no more .

It is right that our democracy allows this to happen. It is a sign that we are civilized, and that we care. Those who may need to bring claims arising from the collateral damage in the Gill case should not fear obstruction by insurers or vilification by third parties who insist they're making the most of their misfortune. They should be emboldened in their conviction that they are entitled to right the wrongs inflicted on them.

The fact is that the men behind the appalling events that led to Baljinder Gill's case are those who truly represent Britain's 'compensation culture'. Common sense condemns them - and gives thanks for a developed judicial system that allows victims to bring claims, when to do so is right.