Much has been said about the PR disaster surrounding Thomas Cook’s handling of the Corfu carbon monoxide poisoning, which killed Robert and Christianne Shepherd in 2006. But the case also throws into the spotlight one of the fundamental injustices in English law: the level of damages awarded following a fatal accident.
The current level of bereavement damages is £12,980. That is the price put on the life of a loved one killed in an accident and fixed by statute. When a child has no financial dependents, there might also be a modest claim for funeral expenses, but very little else can be claimed as a matter of law – despite the devastating impact such a loss will have. Of course, no one would argue that bereavement damages could ever come close to replacing a loved one. And in fact, an early apology and display of compassion from the companies involved usually goes a lot further – as Thomas Cook now appears to have realised some nine years late.
The pain for families can only be made worse by news stories of celebrities receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds in libel damages. But it is truly unimaginable when, as in the Thomas Cook case, the payout to the company in question is many millions of pounds.
Thomas Cook further compounded the sense of injustice by exercising its right not to answer questions at the coroner’s inquest. That is its prerogative, and it is common for tour operators to shield themselves in this way. But some cases call for a more sympathetic approach – none more so than a fatal accident which occurred at accommodation provided as part of a package holiday it had sold.
English law also limits which relatives can claim for bereavement damages. In Spain, Italy or Greece, to contrast, a much wider class of relatives can claim damages following a fatal accident – and the awards tend to be much higher.
We don’t know how much the Shepherd family have actually been paid in damages. But while better protection is usually afforded to those who book a package holiday direct with a UK-based tour operator, in this case, higher damages may have in fact been available in a claim directly against the Greek hotel.
When set against the millions shelled out to Thomas Cook, compounded by the lack of compassion it has displayed, the damages paid to the Shepherd family are yet another poor reflection of the value placed on life in our society.
The government issued a consultation on this topic back in 2007, but then did nothing. It is high time that action was taken to correct this injustice. We think a minimum bereavement damages level of £100,000 would be a vast improvement. And it would be perceived by victims’ families, and the general public, as being a good deal fairer than the current award. But with the new government hell-bent on repealing the Human Rights Act, once again, and regrettably, reform of bereavement damages is unlikely to feature on the parliamentary agenda.
Julian Chamberlayne and Chris Deacon are Partner and Senior Associate respectively at Stewarts.
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