Over €3m cost of settling Westmeath public liability claims

The costs associated with settling public liability claims against Westmeath County Council hit in excess of €3.6 million over a three-year period, the Westmeath Independent has learned.

It's emerged that a total of 97 public liability claims were lodged with the council from 2016 to 2018, according to newly-released figures following a Freedom of Information request by this paper, the majority of which relate to personal injury.

In 2016, the cost of finalising public liability claims throughout Westmeath came to over €1.79 million (€1,795,541 in total). This figure includes awards, legal fees, professional fees and other expenses associated with settling a claim by the council's insurer, IPB Insurance.

By 2017, the cost of public liability claims fell sharply to €906,898, but just a year later the figure was slightly higher again at €914,968. 

In all, the costs total for the three-year period came to €3,617,407 according to IPB Insurance, the State's insurer of councils and public service.

It's important to note that totals relate to the entire county, and to claims that are settled in the years 2016-2018 which may not be the years the claims were lodged.

Looking at the nature of the claims, personal injury make up the vast bulk with 59% of all the applications lodged over the three year period in Westmeath; in 2016 they number 16, a year later they climbed to 20 and last year 23 were submitted to Westmeath County Council.

RISING INSURANCE COSTS FOR COUNCIL

Next comes vehicle damage claims which account for 38% of all claims filed with the local authority over the three-year period list, with just over 2% of the claims linked to property damage from 2016-2018.

Figures supplied by the council show their public liability premia was over €1.6 million in 2017, a year later it was €1.718 million which they say reflects a change in IPB pricing structures in moving to modified community rating. The following year it fell 7.5% to €1.632 million. 

“Every euro spent on insurance is a euro less for services,” Liam Kenny, Director of the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG), a group who represent councillors succinctly comments on the statistics. 

Meanwhile, Peter Boland from the Alliance of Insurance Reform says he is not surprised by the public liability cost figures, a situation he fears is replicated elsewhere around the country.

He believes it is evidence of a “growing compensation culture” and while the number of claims is relatively small, the costs associated with settling them is certainly not.

“There are fluctuations between the years but what is consistent is the enormous amount of money paid out. The average minor soft tissue injury claim in Ireland is over €17,338, that's without legal fees and other costs. 

“By way of comparison the average payout for a soft tissue injury in the UK is €3,798. In Canada it is capped at €2,315, in Germany it is €1,125.” 

“You are unlikely to qualify for any payment for soft tissue injury in South Australia. We’re totally out of the sync with the rest of the world on general damages – it’s important to clarify that general damages only covers pain and suffering; it’s special damages that covers medical bills and loss of earnings. Nobody’s talking about those at all. Society in Ireland cannot afford these numbers,” he stresses, calling on the council and the government to take real action.

Westmeath County Council says attention has been repeatedly drawn to the cost of insurances and the burden it places on the local authority. 

A report presented to councillors in 2018 on the variation in basic rate of local property tax, cites “the trend and rate of increase in costs presents a significant challenge for the council” while “claims frequency and average costs” continue to “increase significantly.”

“Generally, insurance claims, their associated legal and other costs and the level of awards are not sustainable in the medium to long-term,” the report says starkly, a view shared by Peter Boland.
‘Shrinking Irish society’

He says the rising insurance and high number of claims is “shrinking Irish society” with businesses shutting and community/voluntary organisations and clubs restricted in terms of events and activities they can organise.

Local authorities are part of the solution and part of the problem, he adds.

“It (the high cost of insurance) is a drain on Irish society and specifically on the work the council can do. If they would speak out, it would be powerful. However, they continue to settle (claims) and stay quiet,” something he maintains encourages more and more claims. 

Westmeath County Council says their focus is on reducing the number of claims, the bulk of which they say happen in Athlone and Mullingar. Ongoing investment in road (circa €2 million a year) and path repairs is the main means to achieve this, and they believe street enhancement works in Athlone and Mullingar will also help this aim.

This year’s budget includes a provision of €150,000 to implement risk mitigation measures in public spaces, something the council statement says they envisage will continue in future years.

All claims are received and processed by council staff, the lengthy Westmeath County Council explains, adding that this process results in “circa four out of every ten claims not being the responsibility of the council.” Afterwards the claims go to IPB Insurance, effectively a public body owned by its members, which includes local authorities like Westmeath County Council, Educational Training Boards and the HSE.

IPB pays these bodies dividends. That amounted to €419,058 in 2018 for Westmeath County Council.

MORE PROACTIVE STANCE NEEDED

The Alliance for Insurance Reform is calling on the local authority in Westmeath to take a more “proactive” stance generally in terms of insurance and public liability claims.

Peter Boland also hit out at “onerous restrictions” placed on community groups who want to have events or activities in council-owned land or venues in terms of increasing burden sought by the local authorities.

In terms of the national picture, he is calling on the government to establish a new Judicial Council, legislation for which has passed, who will compile guidelines for appropriate general damages for various types of personal injuries, a measure also referred by the council in their statement, along with the establishment of the Personal Injuries Commission and a standardised approach to examination of, and reporting of soft tissue injuries.

“The duty of care of property owners or event organisers has become extremely onerous. A lot of our members feel that if something happens on their own premises or at an organised event they are left 100% liable, and there is now allowance for personal responsibility. I’d call on the government to take action on that...

“In relation to fraudulent and exaggerated claims I want the government to put fully funded Garda response to that. To date, Gardai have been given no budget to target insurance fraud,” Mr Boland complained.

Athlone’s Mayor Cllr Frankie Keena shares the group’s concern saying the rising costs of insurance and claims increases the burden on the council and it has a knock on effect in terms of insurance premium increases.

He hopes mitigation measures by the council will help in the future.

Just last week, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, announced that she has requested the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) to undertake a study into the public liability insurance market.
 

 

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