24th February 18:59
British law lords reject US-style compensation suits
End this compensation nightmare, say judges
By Charlotte Edwardes
(Filed: 03/08/2003) Daily Telegraph
Britain's most senior judges have demanded an end to "the culture of
blame and compensation" in a landmark ruling which decrees that
individuals must take responsibility for their own actions.
The Appellate Committee of the House of Lords has used its judgement
in a compensation case to brand Britain's growing US-style claims
system as an "evil" that interferes with civil liberties and freedom
Safety fears ended this Gloucester cheese-rolling tradition
The five law lords on the committee warned that the increasing number
of cash compensation claims has prompted organisations to take extreme
"grey and dull" safety measures to protect themselves from big
The judges - Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, Lord Hoffmann, Lord Hutton,
Lord Hobhouse of Woodborough, Lord Scott of Foscote - made their
unanimous pronouncement in ruling on the case of John Tomlinson, who
was paralysed in May 1995 when he ignored warning signs and dived into
a lake at Brereton Heath Country Park, Cheshire. Mr Tomlinson sued
Congleton borough council and Cheshire county council for failing to
prevent him from diving in the lake.
While accepting that Mr Tomlinson suffered a "terrible tragedy . . .
in consequence of a relatively minor act of carelessness", the law
lords ruled unanimously against him on the grounds that the council
had properly marked the lake as unsafe for swimming. Furthermore,
rangers patrolled the water to order people out.
The ruling, made last week, rejected claims by Mr Tomlinson's lawyers
that the site authorities owed it to individuals in the park to take
more stringent measures to prevent them from swimming, citing a famous
bon mot: "When you invite a person into your house to use the
staircase, you do not invite him to slide down the banisters."
The judgement stated: "The pursuit of an unrestrained culture of blame
and compensation has many evil consequences and one is certainly the
interference with the liberty of the citizen. Of course there is some
risk of accidents arising out of the joie de vivre of the young, but
that is no reason for imposing a grey and dull safety regime on
The judgment cited a previous case referred to the House of Lords: the
1951 Bolton v Stone case which decreed that a woman was not entitled
to compensation for being struck by a ball hit out of the Cheetham
Cricket Club ground. Her claim was rejected on the grounds that "the
club were carrying on a lawful and socially useful activity". If the
law had ruled against the club, it would effectively have been unable
to continue playing for fear of further similar incidents.
In recent years, there has been growing concern about an expanding
compensation culture in Britain, fuelled by US-style
"ambulance-chasing" law firms which often advertise on television in
search of accident victims. The Woolf Reforms of April 1999 allowed
firms to operate on a "no-win, no-fee" basis - a development designed
to help poor people gain access to the law but which many observers
believe has encouraged speculative claims.
Fears have grown that the country will soon witness cases similar to
such celebrated American lawsuits as that of Stella Liebeck, an
81-year-old from New Mexico, who in 1992 sued McDonald's after she
placed a cup of its coffee between her legs while driving and then
spilled it, scalding herself. She was awarded $2.95 million
compensation after claiming that the coffee was too hot, although this
was later reduced to $640,000.
Already in Britain the cost of compensation claims against the NHS,
for example, has soared from £53 million in 1990-1 to £446 million in
2001-2. In 2001, the Audit Commission estimated that the health
service was facing a total of £4.4 billion in negligence claims. Last
month the Government brought forward proposals for a new "redress
scheme" to limit the spiralling costs from such lawsuits.
The growth in claims has also led to often-prohibitive increases in
insurance premiums for a variety of public events. The Telegraph
revealed last year that Bonfire Night firework displays were being
cancelled around the country as insurers, fearful of lawsuits, raised
premiums to unaffordable exorbitant levels.
This year, a historic cheese rolling event in Gloucestershire, in
which participants race down a hill chasing cheeses, was cancelled
because of safety fears.
Chris Murray, a partner at James Chapman, the law firm which
represented the councils in the Tomlinson case, said: "The decision
effectively means that people can enjoy themselves as much as before.
If the decision had gone the other way it could have had an effect on
people doing things such as visiting the countryside, because it would
have put an incredibly high burden on landowners to protect them from
doing anything that involved a risk.
"It preserves a position: people can still do things of their own free
will but it maintains the duty of authorities to protect against
obvious risks to the public."
He added: "The compensation culture has been on the rise. There are a
lot of genuine claims, but there are also a lot of not-so-genuine
claims and even fraudulent claims which run into millions of pounds.
The law is developing all the time."