Lawsuits in Ireland: The Irish pick up one of America’s worst habits
By Bob Sullivan
People can’t seem to agree whether it’s the fault of lawyers, insurance companies, the government or individual Irish citizens, but one thing is clear: Ireland is fast turning into the lawsuit capital of Europe.
Today, the Irish seem inclined to start lawsuits every time their cars gets bumped from behind or they trip on a cracked sidewalk. It’s referred to kindly as the “compensation culture," and it’s sending auto insurance premiums in Ireland through the roof. Meanwhile, small businesses have seen their insurance double every year for the past three years, forcing them to lay off workers and cancel expansion plans. According to Irish Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, “the growth of lawsuits in Ireland has been deeply corrosive from an economic point of view." (quoted in ThePost.ie, 11/10/02)
Incapacitated - But Still Having Fun An investigative report last year on RTE (Ireland’s national news service) highlighted a typical case: a woman who sued over the results of a car accident, ultimately winning a 50,000 Euro settlement (the original claim was for 2 million). The report showed video of the “victim," who claimed “total incapacitation," walking normally and carrying packages without trouble, over a tape of her husband saying repeatedly that the claim was completely justified. One of the things she claimed to need money for was the jacuzzi she required in her new, crippled life.
According to Ken O’Shea, the reporter who did the piece for RTE’s Prime Time program, “The high number of lawsuits in Ireland is a recent development. When the economy grew quickly to a very high standard, there was suddenly a lot of money around." Two other elements are fueling the rise in litigation, in Mr. O’Shea’s view: “Ireland now has the second highest number of lawyers per capita in the world – after the United States. Also, I think there’s always been an attitude in Ireland that if you have an opportunity to get some money out of the system or the people in charge, you should do it. It’s a colonial hangover."
Don’t Blow It There have been some very creative frauds attempted, including one case in the early nineties where a man actually blew up a Dublin pub while he was inside it, burning himself seriously, in order to create a bogus lawsuit against the pub. His case fell apart when it was found he’d participated in several auto fraudulent lawsuits previously. Another bizarre case in process right now involves a multi-million Euro class action against the state, brought by chronic gamblers who claim their ruinous habit started when they were children, hanging around state-sponsored horse gambling salons.
Faced with a rising anger over insurance costs, the government is trying to contain the problem. But it’s first move might seem counter-intuitive to Americans. Last year, “solicitors" were banned from advertising “no foal no fee" services – taking cases on a pure contingency basis. They can still do it, but they can’t advertise it. The government would prefer personal damage lawyers work on an hourly fee basis. But since a plaintiff’s lawyer gets paid under this arrangement even if he doesn’t win a dime for his client, one wonders if it will only encourage more baseless lawsuits.
Insuring Defeat? After lawyers, the insurance industry seems to catch the most blame for the current mess, for allegedly being too ready to settle cases instead of fighting them. Even the Irish Society of Actuaries, a group from within the the industry, noted in a November 2002 report that “insurance companies pay for the damages and have become administrators of the system," adding that a “deep-pocket syndrome," has lawyers scrambling to sue anybody with an insurance policy.
But fighting every claim is harder than it sounds, according to Martin Long, Public Relations Manager for the Irish Insurance Federation, the top trade group for insurance companies. “People say you should fight, but we have to look at the economics of it." Unfortunately, says Mr. Long, Irish courts tend to be more friendly to plaintiffs than in America, often awarding money even when a strong case has been made that a claim is weak or even fake.
Insurors have taken to hiring former top police officers to beef up their anti-fraud investigations. Besides stopping the worst frauds, this is meant to send a message that insurors will no longer roll over and pay without a fight in most lawsuits. Other steps include the creation of hotlines for people to report insurance fraud, which Mr. Long says has helped sidetrack some offenders, and a database to help establish standard values for particular injuries.
Irish lawyers are hopping mad over a proposal for a new “Personal Injuries Assesment Board." The PIAB, if accepted by the government, will be a non-adversarial tribunal that settles suits without lawyers, at least in cases where the person being sued admits liability from the start. Finally, the Insurance Federation is trying to change popular attitudes with a series of in-your-face billboard ads arguing that fradulent claims drive up everyone’s insurance premiums.
The US and Ireland, according Mr. Long, share a trait that’s make them vulnerable to the lawsuit bug. “Because Ireland has a constitution, when you hit me you’re invading my bodily integrity. Oddly enough, protection of personal liberty is something that lawyers capitalize on."
The Biggest Sugar Daddy Of course, there’s nothing more fun and profitable than bringing lawsuits against the government. According the Gerry Breen, our own Irish Letter writer in Dublin, “nowadays people all over the country want to sue the town council every time they hurt their toe on a public footpath." In Limerick, the problem has reached epic proportions – at least in the Irish perspective. This past August, the Limerick Leader called it’s hometown the “compensation capital" of Ireland, citing statistics that show the local government paying out about 30 Euro a year in personal damage settlements for every single resident of the city, a figure nearly twice that for Dublin.
Of course, that totals only 1.5 million Euros a year. New York City can fork over that much in personal damage awards in one afternoon. Whether the Irish will ever catch up with America’s love of lawsuits mania remains to be seen. But with a full-blown case of what the Limerick Leader calls “the ethos of rights without responsibilities," they seem, unfortunately, to have a very good chance.