NSW's Santa Claus judges blamed for bizarre claims

Huge cash payouts to Australians ever ready to sue have caused public liability premiums to soar

By Jayandra Menon

THE highly litigious nature of Australian society has sparked a crisis in public liability insurance with critics pointing to the outlandish claims being made in court.

New South Wales Premier Bob Carr has blamed 'Santa Claus judges' and 'ambulance chasing lawyers' for contributing to the crisis in his state, where total public liability payouts have jumped from A$190 million (S$189 million) in 1990 to more than A$1 billion now.

'We can't unravel the past and settle all injustices with cash payments,' Mr Carr was quoted to have said in the Daily Telegraph.

'It's the unrealistic approach in our society that has been fed by this roulette wheel mentality that people have taken.

'It's been fed by Santa Claus judges who bear a lot of the blame and it's been fed by a minority of ambulance-chasing lawyers,' he added.

Mr Carr was speaking after a court awarded A$1 million to a 20-year-old man, Mr David Griffin, who sued the New South Wales education department successfully for personal injury suffered after he was knocked out in a fist fight in the school playground when he was in Year 8 (equivalent to Secondary 2 in Singapore).

Mr Griffin said he had been suffering 'migraines and mood swings' since the incident.

The NSW Premier, who said the community could not afford such large awards, has already announced that the state government would be altering the negligence laws to strengthen the defences available in such cases.

The case involving Mr Griffin has only served to highlight the skyrocketing insurance premiums now being blamed for strangling several organisations throughout the country, including sporting bodies and charities.

In Queen- sland, for example, premiums for agricultural shows have gone up by nearly 500 per cent since 1995.

Australia's biggest sports insurer warned recently that premiums were expected to more than double.

This was after a record A$5.8 million payout was awarded to a novice wrestler who was crippled after a bout in February 1998.

The judge in the Victorian Supreme Court found that national wrestling coach Samuel Parker was responsible for allowing the then 18-year-old junior champion Hardip Bassi to perform a dangerous 'suplex' throw on Constantinos Foscolos, who then suffered irreversible damage to his spinal cord.

A number of the larger underwriters have already started notifying higher risk sports that they were no longer in the market.

The Equestrian Federation of Australia, for example, has been told by its insurer that it would not be renewing its policy when it expires in September.

Insurers said the general tendency of Australians to sue played a role in the rising premiums although they also acknowledged that other factors such as Sept 11 played a role as well.

'There's a greater propensity on the part of people to actually sue and in fact what looks like fairly simple, straightforward local events have the potential to have multi-million dollar claims come out of them,' said Mr Philip McGuire from the Insurance Council of Australia.

The government in Canberra has already called a meeting of federal and state ministers to discuss the crisis and a second meeting has been scheduled for this month.


Bane of a highly litigious society

SOME recent cases filed in New South Wales that have raised eyebrows:

A woman who fell from a tree while trying to entice her cat to come down is suing New South Wales police, claiming they shone a torch in her eyes and forced her to descend too quickly. Ms Vanessa Adams, 32, was left a paraplegic by the fall outside her apartment in the early hours of Sept 30, 1996.

A student sent out of a classroom for misbehaving is suing the New South Wales education department over brain injuries sustained when he fell over a balcony while unsupervised. Eugene Olive was nine years old when he was ordered to the 'hat room' by a teacher for misbehaving on Sept 23, 1991. Unseen by his teacher, the boy went out to a nearby balcony and began swinging on it when he fell four metres, landing on concrete. He suffered skull fractures and brain damage, which left him moderately disabled with personality and anti-social problems.

A man who became a quadriplegic after he dived into the water at Bondi Beach has successfully sued a local council. Mr Guy Swain, 28, is now confined to a wheelchair. He blamed a sandbank between the swimming flags for the accident in November 1997 that left him with no sensation below the upper chest.

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