There has been recent press coverage relating to the rise in claims against personal injury firms for under-settlements on behalf of their clients. Is this becoming more problematic and is it likely to get worse when the Jackson reforms come into force in April 2013?
Under-settlement of claims is not a new phenomenon and it is unclear whether media coverage has simply brought the issue to the fore. However, it may be argued that some firms are becoming increasingly reliant upon under-qualified staff, with little or no experience in dealing with claimants and very little understanding of medical terminology, all of which can lead to advising a client to accept the first offer that is made. Claims appear to be being settled very quickly with very little thought to the particular issues. Most worryingly many claims are being settled without sight of medical evidence. The problem may only worsen with the likely introduction of fixed fees placing increasing pressure on profit margins.
Firms with a minimal number of qualified solicitors but a bank of inexperienced paralegals already exist, with staff pressurised by profit margins and fee forecasts. There is very little, if any, training at all and consequently whilst staff may cope with routine claims, the risk is that they will fail to recognise those claims where injuries are more severe, particularly where there is no basic understanding of the medical evidence presented.
However, personal injury specialists must hold firm. “Bucket shop” firms have always existed, and will continue to exist, in increasing numbers. Professional negligence claims will continue to arise against those firms who press for early and inappropriate settlements.
Claims must always be efficiently handed, but qualified solicitors with training and experience in personal injury claims will be able to recognise early on those claims where injuries are significant and will ensure the right settlement is achieved.
I have taken over cases where clients have been concerned about the advice given to accept a settlement. In most, the offer has been made relatively early on. If accepted, the question of professional negligence could arise. A recent example involved an amputee who had been offered £250,000 to settle. The advice had been it was a reasonable offer. The client was not convinced and came to me. With appropriate investigation and advice, the claim settled for more than £1.25 million (over five times the original offer).
The situation is even more problematic in claims involving children with acquired brain injury. Often such claims have to be held over for many years, but many solicitors are troubled by this and push to an approval of a wholly inadequate settlement.
It is a worrying problem. The injured party must be put first at all times. Whilst it is important to move claims to a final conclusion as swiftly and as efficiently as possible, this should not be to the detriment of the injured victim. Whilst the squeeze on profit margins with fixed fees will impact, it is vital that all staff undertaking personal injury litigation are appropriately trained and supervised to avoid an increasing trend in under settlement of claims. If in any doubt advice should be sought from a specialist firm.