This week saw the publication of the latest annual report from the Injuries Board and as usual it was heralded by the well-oiled public relations machine that the Board employs. The Injuries Board is supposed to be an independent process through which injured persons can have entitlement to compensation assessed. In reality however, its independence is at best questionable and each year the publication of its annual report gives us a chance to see its true colours.
This year, the big spin from Patricia Byron, former executive at Aviva Insurance and now CEO of the Injuries Board is that there is an “emerging claims culture” in Ireland and that legislation is now needed to curb advertising and regulate so called “claims agencies”. She argues that the 4.7% rise in personal injury applications to the Board during 2012 is suggestive of an alarming rise in claims because, she says, Irish roads have never been safer and there are fewer people at work. I suspect she is implying here that because she and the insurance industry had expected there would be fewer claims in a recession, and this has not proved to be the case, a rise must mean that people are being dishonest or otherwise improperly motivated. Remember, In the insurance industry’s eyes, injured people are usually ‘dishonest’, ‘exaggerating’, ‘malingering’ or otherwise behaving in what they see as a dishonest manner to do the insurance industry out of their super-profits. That is why they run those expensive advertising campaign for the so called “Insurance Confidential Helpline” - by beating the drum repeatedly, it creates and maintains a fiction that there is a societal problem with dishonest personal injuries. Everyone knows that there are some dishonest people out there and we have a system to deal with that, but such cases are the rare exception. I remember about 10 years ago an executive of the Insurance Federation of Ireland was asked on Morning Ireland about fraudulent claims and he stated that the incidence of such claims was negligible in Ireland. That was the last we heard from him!
But back to the Injuries Board and Ms Byron. She went on to say that we (the Irish people no less) must be on the alert against this “emerging claims culture”, a phrase beloved of the insurance industry. Presumably this is a ‘culture’ where people who pay for insurance to protect them in the event that they cause someone else injury, then accidentally cause injury and the injured party makes a lawful claim against that insurance. This is where I think Ms Byron and I must fundamentally disagree. My view is that if I buy insurance, I am entitled to expect my insurer to pay up if I hurt someone or cause them other loss. Isn’t that the whole point of insurance and isn’t the premium set at a level that will pay out on that claim and still leave a handsome profit for the insurance company? Why then does Ms Byron, the Injuries Board and the wider insurance industry share a differing view? A truly ‘independent’ Injuries Board would not side with the insurance industry all the time like this.
The next Phantom Menace to get a lash from Ms Byron was the rise of ‘claims-handling intermediaries’. If you have watched day-time TV from the UK you probably know what she is talking about here. These are companies, not solicitors’ practices, who advertise heavily to attract business from persons injured in accidents and offer to advise them in seeking compensation. While we as solicitors are heavily regulated in the format and content of our advertising, such agencies are not. I advertise; I see it as an important part of my business but I do so within a framework of rules set by my regulatory authority, The Law Society of Ireland. Ms Byron is not objecting to solicitors, but to this emerging trend where websites in particular are attracting clients and then referring them on to law firms on a commercial basis. Regulation is reasonable and I doubt anyone would want to see a return to the old days of pretty unsavoury advertising in personal injury law but it is pretty rich to hear this bleating coming from the Injuries Board. The Board is completely unregulated in its advertising and boy do they advertise. In 2011, their accounts showed they spent nearly 261,000 on advertising! If you google almost any personal injury related phrase, you will be met with paid ads by the Injuries Board directing you to their website. Then on the site you are treated to a celebrity doctor telling you how easy it is to make a claim and a series of case studies advising how injured persons can get quick and easy compensation in just a few months – it barely stops short of saying ‘E-Z Money, Real Quik’. What makes this even more objectionable is that the Injuries Board abuses its dominant position as a State body, with deep pockets to out advertise anyone by strongly advising against you getting independent legal advice from a solicitor. They lie and warn people that if they go to a solicitor, it will cost a lot of money and they will have to pay it from their compensation. Well I can only speak for my own practice but that is certainly not how it works here. I have only had to charge a fee from a compensation award in a tiny minority of cases and in every single case, I have achieved a much better award of damages for my clients that the ‘E-Z Money’ offer that the Injuries Board tried to tempt them with. Remember always, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
It is this kind of hypocrisy that is so hard to stomach. The biggest claims-handling agency in Ireland, the only one that I see with a massive public-sector advertising budget is the Injuries Board. It is the Injuries Board that is driving an increase in number of applications through its own massive advertising spend and its E-Z Money tactics. I hope our legislators see that when the necessary regulation for such agencies or intermediaries comes but I suspect Ms Byron is raising a smoke screen in the hope that nobody notices what the Injuries Board really is and they escape the regulation that is warranted.
It is natural that we all try to defend our own little patch, look out for our own interests, but in doing so, we should at least be honest with people. Perhaps next year the Injuries Board will come clean. Perhaps.
In the meantime, if you are unfortunate enough to suffer an injury and you think you may be entitled to compensation, go and get some independent advice from any solicitor experienced in personal injury work. I doubt it will cost you anything but always ask just to be sure. Just don’t leave it to the insurance industry to tell you what compensation you are entitled to.
If you have a query regarding this article you can contact Cian O’Carroll Solicitors on Freephone 1-800 60-70-80 or visit www.TIPPLAW.com
Cian O’Carroll Solicitors, A Medical Negligence & Personal Injury Law Firm