Several of yesterday’s newspapers carried the story about a Norfolk police officer suing a garage owner for damages. I should start by saying that I accept that not everything you read in the newspapers is true. I am writing here about a principle and don’t really feel able to comment properly on the case in question as I wasn’t there.
Whatever the accuracy of the media reports, at first blush the circumstances seemed fairly simple: the officer tripped and fell over a kerb at the rear of the garage. It was dark, she claims that the area was poorly lit and there were no signs drawing her attention to the 6 inch kerb stone. She has instructed a London firm of solicitors who have apparently written a three-page letter to the garage owner containing eleven alleged health and safety breaches. The officer is now reportedly seeking a possible five-figure sum as compensation for the injuries she received from the fall.
Some of you may think that suing someone under these basic circumstances is wrong in the first place but I think we all have to accept that this is the way we now live here in the UK. Our commercial television channels are littered with advertisements from solicitors wanting to pursue a claim for you. A search of Google reveals thousands of websites dedicated to obtaining compensation for you if you’ve had an accident that wasn’t your fault (injurylawyers4u.co.uk being one of my favourites as, let’s face it, it does go straight to the point!)
The difficulty I have with this claim though is that the officer concerned was on duty and there as a result of a 999 call. She was assisting the garage owner investigate a possible break-in after his alarm had been activated. That, I believe, sheds a completely different light on the case and if it goes to court and is proved it could have far-reaching effects on how we deal with the emergency services.
For example: You have been doing some work in your garden for several days and for convenience have left the tools out each night. One night you hear the sound of what you believe is someone breaking into your house via your back door. You dial 999 and the police, when they arrive, naturally search your garden for suspects. If one of them trips and falls over your garden tools in the dark are you liable for his or her injuries? What happens if, on entering your house, the police are assaulted by the burglars – can you be sued for not shouting “I’ve called the police” downstairs to ensure they escape before the police arrive?
Please don’t think I’m being frivolous here but I am exaggerating to make my point. This is, in my opinion, an extremely serious issue. Surely there has to be a limit to our personal liability in certain circumstances particularly when we have called the emergency services to help us?
Finally I am reminded of a passage from a short story by Spike Milligan where the hero of the piece (Pontius Kak!) had called the French police.
“Why did you call us?” asks the French detective. “I called you because I was in trouble”, said Kak. “Quelle nerve”, replied the detective, “Do we call you when we’re in trouble?”