Working as a personal injury lawyer, the phrase 'compensation culture' is unfortunately never far away - and sometimes it's not hard to see why.
Almost every TV channel, radio station and newspaper will have some form of advert stating 'where there's blame there's a claim' or 'you could be entitled to compensation'. Meaning it is easy for the public to start believing people claim for almost any mishap or financial irregularity, in exchange for huge sums of cash.
But I assure you this isn't the case, and so I wanted to revisit a few of the myths around compensation in the workplace that the Trade Union Congress (TUC) published an excellent report on last year.
Workers are too ready to claim compensation?
It is estimated that every year over 850,000 workers are injured or made ill through work, most of whom go on to make a full recovery. Unfortunately over 25,000 of these workers will be forced to give up work as a result of their illness or work related injury, yet according to the Association of British Insurers only 60,000 will gain any compensation from their employers. This means that 9 out of every 10 workers who are injured or made ill through work get no compensation whatsoever.
During 2013/14, an estimated 629,000 workers were involved in some sort of accident whilst at work - 133 of these fatally injured. Although shocking, this is less than half the number of workers killed 20 years ago.
Over 50 percent of fatal injuries to workers involved either falls from height, contact with moving machinery or being struck by a vehicle - with falls and slips/trips making up more than half of all the reported major injuries.
Despite the view that workers are quick to jump on compensation opportunities, I often speak to clients who are actually fearful of making a claim as they don't want their relationship with their employer to be affected, or even for their employer to suffer financially. Many workers are often totally unaware that any compensation awarded does not come directly from their employer, but from their public liability insurance policy.
An injury claim against your employer also doesn't always need to be a negative action. In many cases the outcome of a claim can actually help ensure working environments are more closely assessed - thereby reducing the likelihood of someone else being harmed. It is for this reason that I would urge anyone injured at work to always report the accident and obtain specialist legal advice following medical attention.
Compensation is paid for any old accident?
To me the myth that 'compensation is paid for any old accident' is quickly discredited by the statistic I referenced earlier - that 9 out of every 10 workers who are injured through their work receive no compensation and over 25,000 people are forced to give up work every year as a direct result of an injury or illness received whilst working.
Some people may believe that they can sue for compensation whenever there's an accidental mishap, and that compensation is just dished out regardless by the courts. This clearly is not the case as successful claimants must prove that the defendant had been negligent; which can be exceptionally difficult as the incident must have been foreseeable with the actions or inactions of the defendant causing the injury.
Previously, if an employer caused an injury by breaching the health and safety regulations, the employee could rely on that breach as the basis of his case. More recently, the Government made changes to the law to favour employers and it is now up to the claimant to prove that the employer was negligent. By changing the law to favour the employer it is likely to put off large numbers of workers from making claims for compensation, allowing many negligent employers to avoid making amends and allowing them to continue operating potentially unsafe working practices.
Lawyers often drag these cases on unnecessarily to keep their costs up?
Solicitors have to act in their client's best interest; therefore they cannot drag cases on unnecessarily to increase their costs and the costs have to be proportionate to the case, reasonable and necessary.
Most cases now go through a new claims procedure where legal costs incurred by the claimant are fixed; meaning the maximum costs which can be incurred for a claim falling within £10,000-£25,000 will be capped at £1,600. There is simply no benefit to a lawyer in dragging a case out for a bigger bill.
The new claims procedure also benefits the claimant in that the timeframes for insurance companies accepting claims and making decisions on liability (fault) are greatly reduced. I consider this to be especially good news for injured people.
It is often the case that in the event a defendant or their insurer fails to admit liability quickly, little or no attempt is made to offer rehabilitation or early medical treatment to the victim. This can lead to a slower recovery or the victim's injury becoming worse due to the delay in specialist treatment, particularly with back problems as they tend to respond quicker to early intervention.
Further cost and time savings would be observed if insurers admitted liability early, rather than waiting until the last minute when medical or other expert reports have been obtained to prepare a case for trial.
Compensation payments are too high?
My motivation for working in personal injury comes from helping those who have been unfairly injured, not to sue as many companies as possible. Strict guidelines govern what must be proven in order to claim compensation, showing that the bar for claiming work based compensation is in fact very high. Reports show that 75% of cases are for damages of less than £10,000. It is estimated that an average settlement is around £7,500 but due to a small number of larger payments, the majority of claimants receive less than £5,000.
Very occasionally there are settlements of over £1,000,000; however these often relate to people who have been severely injured, or as a result of their injury or illness require permanent care. This figure therefore simply reflects the loss in income over their remaining working life, and the fact they will never work again in their chosen profession.
Whilst researching this blog I read about teacher Joyce Walters who received £156,000 in compensation when she damaged her vocal chords after being forced to raise her voice to be heard in class. On the surface this amount may seem excessive for what many may consider a part of her job, however Mrs Walters actually had to undergo months of speech therapy and can still only speak for a short period before her throat becomes sore and hoarse. This has made it impossible for her to ever go back to her chosen career and her life outside work has been irrevocably altered, which the compensation amount no doubt is intended to reflect.
The myths and the human cost
In my role I deal with the aftermath of work related injuries, witnessing first-hand the life-changing effects on people's lives. While those such as Mrs Walters may receive the compensation deserved, it will never truly compensate for someone's health being ruined because an employer failing to provide a safe place of work.
Quite simply, if employers had safer working practices then the likelihood of a claim against them would be greatly reduced. Even in the event of a claim, if the insurance companies just accepted liability earlier then the claim amount could be greatly reduced, with early intervention and treatment offering the opportunity to soften the impact.
Have you encountered any stigma when making a claim for compensation? Or do you believe there's some truth in some of these myths?
About the author
Stephanie Robinson is a Chartered Legal Executive with over twelve years experience of helping injured people. Stephanie currently handles cases that involve accidents at work, occupier's liability and accidents in public.