£50,000 for being hit by a rugby ball: when compensation culture goes mad

Patrick Collinson
Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Imagine you bag some tickets to watch England play rugby against Ireland at the magnificent Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Should a loose ball spin out and hit you in the arm, what’s the proper response? Throw it back to a ball boy or girl on the sidelines? No, the thing to do is go straight to a solicitor, preferably a no-win, no-fee one, and demand £50,000 in compensation.

Stadium managers are facing a new world of spectator litigation – with talk of nets having to be placed around pitches to avoid potentially huge claims.

If this sounds entirely fanciful, it’s not. Irish rugby is currently facing two separate claims from spectators, one for under €60,000 and one for over €60,000. One claimant says she wants damages after the ball hit her arm, the other said it hit her in the face.

Note that this is happening in Ireland, not the UK (although it’s usually UK insurers that are down for the payouts). If you think claims and compensation culture in the UK is out of control, Ireland takes it to a whole other level – and it is a warning to us all about keeping payouts in check.

One victim is the bouncy castle industry, which is, almost comically, affected by “inflated” payouts – but it’s no laughing matter for the hundreds of operators in the business.

On 1 August, the last insurer willing to offer public liability cover to the bouncy castle providers decided to quit. Why? Because of false claims and payouts granted by courts that are far too high, says Gerry Frawley of the Irish Inflatable Hirers Association.

Councils and event operators are legally required to make sure public liability insurance is in place, and without it the bouncy castles will be no more. “In a year’s time there will be nobody with an insured bouncy castle in this country,” says Frawley. “To most sane people none of this makes sense.”

Coastal activity centres across Ireland are the next business with a sinking feeling. Whale and dolphin watching, snorkelling tours, diving and boat charters and technical diving all face possible closure – because insurers are terrified of the claims.

In April, an Oireachtas (Irish parliament) inquiry was told that play centres, trampoline parks, pet farms, bowling alleys and other facilities where families can have fun are closing because of claims.

One operator of a play park in Navan said: “One child banged his head and, as a result, I am being sued because the child now has anxiety and is unable to play with his friends … The reserve on this is €23,000, despite the child not suffering any injury. This is the only reason I cannot get insurance.”

The committee also heard how a child’s train operator for shopping centres faces an annual insurance bill of about €30,000 in Ireland but only €1,500 for the same service in the UK.

It doesn’t help that Maria Bailey, an MP in Ireland’s ruling party, Fine Gael, fell off a swing in a trendy hotel, and sued, potentially netting her up to €60,000. It later emerged that she was at the time apparently clutching a beer in one hand and a friend’s wine bottle in another. She dropped the case amid public outcry, and the case has thrown Ireland’s claims culture into the political spotlight. But let’s not assume this sort of malarkey doesn’t go on in the UK – currently in the last days of the greatest compensation feast ever: the £36bn paid out for mis-sold PPI. Yes, most claims are probably genuine. But it has also fostered a money-for-nothing attempt by many to grab payouts on the flimsiest evidence.

I went through the process myself some time ago. The claims company encouraged me to put in an entirely speculative claim, presumably in the hope that some claims, no matter how fanciful, will stick. I did not go ahead.

The banks failed to proactively contact people who were sold PPI and agree payouts, so perhaps they deserve being swamped with specious claims. But I, for one, will be happy when the whole sorry saga is over next week. Unfortunately, these same claims companies will turn to whatever 20% cut they can make next. We’re all familiar with bogus whiplash claims, and the more recent epidemic of holiday-sickness claim at all-inclusive hotels, lodged a suspiciously long time after the claimants return home. Are British bouncy castles next?