Friday, June 17, 2005

Warning - this article may contain nuts

Despite the incessant rain, apparently the summer has begun in the UK and Ireland. People are flocking to the stores to rekindle their passion for the braai, or barbecue, as it is known in northern climes. Recently, I decided to join them and bought a new braai. It came wrapped in plastic with a cardboard picture on the front of the self-same braai garnished with some sizzling steaks. Below the picture was a range of warnings. The first stated that the plastic wrapping should be disposed of carefully, as it may be dangerous to children: fair enough. But underneath, a further message read: “Warning – food not included”. How many people have actually returned the braai to the shop complaining the steaks on the picture were absent from the package?

This is an excellent, albeit idiotic, demonstration of what is known as the compensation culture. If a warning or disclaimer is not present on a product then all sorts of legal avenues for compensation are left wide open. Many fear that a US-style litigation system, where you can sue for just about anything, is developing in Europe.

But this is a complicated issue. The British government’s Better Regulation Task Force feels that the notion of a compensation culture in the UK is a myth. The UK is nowhere close to the US, and accident claims for injuries, for example, are dropping rather than increasing. Some companies have an interest in increasing the hype around the so-called compensation culture, as it can potentially discourage claims. Some may even try to use it as an excuse to weasel out of paying genuine claims. Ambulance-chasing lawyers operating on a “no win, no fee” basis and attracting clients through adverts offering easy money can be equally dubious.

So, like most things, a balance is needed. We need to accept that the idea of suing for minor mishaps can reach the level of the absurd if not regulated. Tony Blair, in a recent speech in which he attacked the compensation culture, cited the example of a local council removing its hanging flower baskets from a street because of fears they could fall on someone’s head.

At the same time, compensation cannot be dismissed as a dirty issue. In South Africa, Paula Howell, of Pretoria’s Legal Resources Centre, has commented in the Business Report Online that possibly tens of thousands of compensation claims from the Workmen’s Compensation Fund cannot be final-ised because employers have not completed the correct forms. Avoiding responsibility in this way is as problematic as making a spurious compensation claim. The law can force people to take responsibility for protecting workers and take to task those who make overstated compensation claims. But the law is a blunt instrument. At the end of the day, the issue boils down to personal responsibility and fairness. Putting workers or consumers in a situation where they may be in danger implies accountability from those placing them at risk. Equally, expecting companies to fork out if you do something stupid or exaggerate injury is hardly reasonable. Warnings on packaging can be useful; take, for example, health warnings on cigarette packs. A few more warnings in South Africa may not go amiss, such as cautioning people of the dangers of carrying workers on the back of open vehicles or overcrowding taxis. But let’s not go overboard. As I fired up my new braai this weekend, opened a beer and a bag of peanuts, then came the clincher: “Warning – this product may contain nuts!”

Copyright Brandon Hamber, June 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 June 2005.