An individual who exaggerated his injuries following an accident at work has been found in contempt of court and sentenced to 10 months, following the use of surveillance footage by insurer, QBE.
On 31 July 2023, the court determined whether QBE UK Limited’s (“QBE”) application for permission to commence contempt proceedings against Mr Mark Hilton would be granted. Originally, Mr Hilton had issued proceedings, seeking damages of £600,000, following an accident at work. Within the defence, liability was admitted and proceedings, therefore, progressed in respect of causation and quantum only.
As the underlying proceedings progressed, QBE began to suspect that Mr Hilton may have been making fraudulent statements, forging documents and exaggerating his injuries. Mr Hilton had claimed, amongst other things, that he could not drive, dress himself or walk more than a few steps even with the aid of a walking stick. QBE obtained surveillance footage of Mr Hilton. Within the footage, Mr Hilton was seen driving a car to the shops, walking around unaided without difficulty and carrying out works to a car. Investigations also uncovered that Mr Hilton had lied about his daughters’ age and forged her birth certificate in order to separate himself from genuine medical records (asserting that the records related to another) which were not supportive of his position.
In light of the surveillance footage, QBE amended its Defence and alleged that Mr Hilton was, pursuant to CPR 44.16, fundamentally dishonest and, as such, the claim should be dismissed under section 57 of the Criminal Justice and courts Act 2015. Furthermore, they asserted that QOCS should be disapplied.
Following failures by Mr Hilton to comply with court orders, the underlying proceedings were struck out, QOCS was disapplied pursuant to CPR 44.15(1)(c)(i) and Mr Hilton was ordered to pay QBE’s costs. The court granted permission to bring contempt proceedings against Mr Hilton in respect of all but one of the 21 grounds.
Contempt of court
On 17 November 2023, contempt of court proceedings came before the court. Being found in contempt of court can result in a maximum prison term of two years. The court has previously held that those who have been found to be falsely bringing or falsely exaggerating personal injuries can, generally, expect to face a custodial prison sentence. Furthermore, whilst the culpability and harm caused/ potential harm caused must be considered, if the false statements were deliberately or recklessly verified by a statement of truth, that would likely be so inherently serious that a prison sentence would be necessary. It was accepted by Mr Hilton that the threshold for a custodial sentence had been reached in this case, however, it was his position that it would be appropriate for the sentence to be suspended.
Mr Justice Constable confirmed that he considered Mr Hilton’s false claims to be “egregious”, in particular, he considered falsifying documents especially grave. He commented that, in guidance for sentencing a criminal offence of fraud in excess of £500,000, the starting point was seven years. In addition to the £600,000 claimed in this matter, significant costs had been incurred on both sides.
Ultimately, the court sentenced Mr Hilton to a term of 10 months’ imprisonment. The court did not consider that his sentence should be suspended, and immediate custody was ordered “to signal the gravity with which the Court will deal with those seeking to gain from false and grossly exaggerated personal injury claims”. Half of the sentence will be served in custody, and the other half on licence.
The case is important in that it demonstrates the approach the courts can be willing to take to fraud in insurance cases to both punish the fraudster and deter others from taking a similar approach. The court commented that QBE were within their rights to bring contempt of court proceedings against Mr Hilton in order to protect their interests and those of the public, who would ultimately pay the price for fraud such as this through increased premiums.
The case also demonstrates how important a tool video surveillance can be in personal injury cases. Whilst obtaining video surveillance can be expensive and is not always conclusive, there are steps which can be taken to increases prospects, including providing clear instructions regarding the claimant’s alleged restrictions and taking care over the timing of both the video recording and disclosure. Late disclosure may be unavoidable, practically, given the nature of the evidence and the need to ensure claimants have nailed their colours to the mast in terms of disability. However, faced with applications from defendants for permission to adduce video surveillance disclosed late, courts will typically allow the evidence in if it clearly demonstrates inconsistency in presentation, provided the disclosure is not so late as to amount to an ambush.
Given the frequent difficulty of distinguishing dishonest claims from genuine but apparently disproportionate responses to injury, video surveillance may be the only way to undermine a claim, when used in conjunction with appropriate medical evidence. As such, obtaining surveillance footage can, sometimes, be a proportionate investment.