Where the real unfairness lies in ‘compensation culture’

I came across a court case the other day that throws an interesting light on the unfairness of our ‘compensation culture’. It involved a supermarket customer who tripped over a basket that had been discarded near the checkout counter. She fell and injured her shoulder.

The woman sued, alleging that the supermarket had been negligent. She won in the lower court but then lost in the Court of Appeal. She ended up with nothing for her troubles … but that’s not where the unfairness lies.

For that we have to look further at the Appeal Court’s reasoning. The court accepted the supermarket’s evidence that it had it good safety measures in place and had done all it reasonably could to prevent accidents happening.

The area was checked for potential hazards every five minutes or so. It was likely that the stray basket had been discarded by another shopper and had only been left there for a very short time. The court also accepted that the staff were trained to remove stray items and so it was difficult to see what more the supermarket could have done to prevent the accident.

It all seems so reasonable, so where is the unfairness?

It lies in the fact that this story never got so much as a mention in the media. If the lady had been awarded £100,000 then the tabloids would have been screaming about the scandal of compensation culture gone mad. As she got nothing, as the judges behaved so reasonably, the story dies.

I don’t want to appear naïve. I appreciate that news needs to be out of the ordinary, so let me come at the issue from a different angle.

Let me amend it to say the unfairness is not so much that this story didn’t get any attention, but that the other side of the compensation culture argument never gets any attention.

I’m thinking, for example, of the cases where an accident victim is bullied by insurers into accepting a reduced compensation figure before they get the chance to get independent legal advice. That’s appalling too but we rarely hear about it.

Former prime minister, David Cameron, didn’t help with this little gem of prejudice: ‘A damaging compensation culture has arisen, as if people can absolve themselves from any personal responsibility for their own actions, with the spectre of lawyers only too willing to pounce with a claim for damages on the slightest pretext. We simply cannot go on like this.’

Well, he was right there. We cannot go on like this.

We cannot tolerate this one-dimensional approach because, make no mistake, the real scandal of the phrase ‘compensation culture’ is not that it leads to frivolous, unjustified claims but rather that it treats injury victims as if they’re scroungers on the make.

It makes people who’ve been seriously injured through someone else’s negligence feel guilty for seeking justice and fair compensation.

How did it come this? How did we arrive at a situation where innocent victims who may have had their lives shattered are seen as the bad guys while faceless, corporate insurance companies are seen as the good guys?

While it’s easy to criticise politicians and the media, the legal profession must also take some of the responsibility for allowing the myth of compensation culture to grow unchecked into the monster it has now become.

I’m not sure lawyers have done enough to counter the propaganda of the insurers and other interested parties.

In the past it was hard to fight back because the main stream media controlled the flow of information and most papers were hostile to personal injury claims. Social media has helped to redress that balance. Now it’s possible for solicitors to put forward the other side on ‘compensation culture’ with articles on their website and then reach out to an audience on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

You now have a direct line to the public, to potential clients…why not use it.

This article first appeared in the Law Gazette