News

Ministers consider measures to reduce UK’s 1500 daily claims for whiplash

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e3226 (Published 04 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3226
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

Panels of independent doctors may be set up to assess whiplash claims as part of a bid by the UK government to curb spurious and exaggerated claims.

The move is one of a range of measures on which the government is to consult this summer after a surge in the number of questionable whiplash claims, which insurers say has added £90 (€110; $145) to the average car insurance premium.

Ministers say that the UK has become the “whiplash capital of Europe,” with drivers and passengers making 1500 claims a day for whiplash injuries. Five ministers met insurers and consumer groups at a summit in London on 2 May to discuss possible remedies.

Independent medical panels could take over the assessment of whiplash injuries from GPs and doctors working for medical reporting organisations. The Ministry of Justice said: “Independent (for example, court appointed) medical panel doctors without direct client links to either the claimant or defendants could help to provide a transparent and consistent approach to assessment and easier identification of exaggerated or fraudulent injuries.”

The problem is that diagnosis is usually made on the basis of symptoms described by the patient. John O’Dowd, a consultant spinal surgeon at London Bridge Hospital in London, told Sky News: “It’s very difficult for the doctor in isolation to say whether whiplash is fraudulent or not. Generally, down the line we only pick it up when we see (covert) video footage of our patients who are claiming they are very disabled but are clearly functioning normally on the video.”

Insurers say that it is often cheaper to settle a low value claim than fight it and end up paying disproportionate sums in legal costs. The justice minister, Kenneth Clarke, said, “It is scandalous that we have a system where it is cheaper for insurers to settle a spurious whiplash claim out of court than defend it.”

To help tackle this, the government proposes to raise the small claims limit for personal injury cases from £1000 to £5000. Cases worth up to £5000 would be dealt with under the small claims procedure, where claimants get no legal costs if they win, giving solicitors no incentive to take on a typical low value whiplash claim.

Another measure under consideration is banning whiplash claims if the car was travelling at a speed below 10 mph.

Last year the former justice secretary Jack Straw publicised the “racket” whereby insurers themselves were making money from selling details of crash victims to solicitors who encouraged them to make claims. The government has since passed legislation to ban the payment of referral fees in personal injury cases.

Ministers also expect that new changes to the rules on “no win, no fee” arrangements will make such cases less attractive to solicitors. If this doesn’t occur, the House of Commons transport select committee has suggested that there would be “a strong case to consider primary legislation to require objective evidence of a whiplash injury or of the injury having a significant effect on the claimant’s life, before compensation was paid.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3226