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The Irish Courts declare: An Ass is beyond Price

Well look, at least we may have solved the mystery of why so few hardened criminals seem to get custodial sentences, these days: The compensation claims might bankrupt the country.

A former prisoner in Mountjoy, who lacerated his right buttock on a defective bunk bed while going to the loo in the middle of the night, was today awarded €40,000 damages against the Minister for Justice.

Judge Terence O’Sullivan said Stephen Doyle had weeks earlier scratched his hand on the jagged remains of a safety bar on his top bunk and held him one fifth responsible for his hip injury on the basis of contributory negligence, reducing the award to €32,000.

Let’s not play down the extent of the injuries received here, by the way: This fellow needed nine stitches. As cuts on the rear end go, it was a nasty one. And, given the proximity of the backside to other, eh, more important equipment, one can imagine that the psychological shock was considerable. Chap was a few inches away from qualifying for a position in the Byzantine Court.

Nor can anybody argue that the wheels of justice in Ireland turn without due thought and consideration: Eleven years, this fellow has been waiting for his day in court. Eleven long years, living with the trauma of a stitched caboose, and not a penny to show for it in compo.

As ever, writing about court decisions when one was not in court to hear all the evidence is a fraught business, and perhaps there is some aggravating trauma which has not come to public light. But what we do know, and what has been reported, is fairly straightforward: The victim got up in the night to pee, sliced his bottom on some jagged metal, and required nine stitches. So far as we know, he’s made a full recovery. I would argue that, if the prison service’s insurers think they got a raw deal here, they are not without a case. Five grand might have seemed excessive to some.

What can we say of the Irish courts?

Well, we can say that it’s a fair observation that you’ll get a better day out in the Irish courts if you’ve been the victim of some civil incident than a criminal incident. Someone runs into the back of your car at a red light and causes whiplash? You’ll probably get a decent payday from that. Someone deliberately drives into you while you’re on your bike? Then your attacker may – as happened last week – receive a suspended sentence. Insurers certainly pay a higher price, these days, than criminals do.

This may not be unrelated, of course, to the fact that the state in general is always more liberal with the spending of other people’s money than it is with its own. When it jails someone, it has to find a prison place, and feed them, and provide them with rehabilitation, and social workers, and a whole range of people whose job it is to make a bad egg into a good one. When it encounters a little tip at a red light, by contrast, well. It costs nothing to tell someone else to fork over the cash. There’s a reason why the richest lawyers are those who work in personal injuries, while those who work in criminal cases will often tell you they didn’t take that path for the money.

The same lawyers, incidentally, are generally ferociously opposed to tort reform. Tort reform, for the uninitiated, is a proposal that would limit the payouts in certain personal injury cases, by setting the compensation down in statute. Broken arm? Five grand. And so on. This, it is argued, would prevent courts from tossing around ludicrous numbers for non-life-changing injuries, and, in turn, reduce insurance costs for the rest of us. If you are a small business, most of your insurance costs arise from the fact that if someone slips on your floor and hurts their tailbone, the business could end up costing your insurer an amount of money more eye-watering than the injury itself.

Opponents argue that such a law would, of course, cause problems with the hard cases. Last week, for example, a very good lawyer secured $10 million for a child who suffered negligence during birth and has been left with permanent disabilities. How do you legislate for every situation?

The short answer is that you don’t: But it wouldn’t be hard to legislate for the common ones. Whiplash, soft tissue injuries, and so on.

If you are injured and recover, then of course you should be entitled to medical fees and loss of earnings, and perhaps a small payment for your distress. But if you’re asking me, 40 grand for cutting your bum makes a joke of justice. And we don’t need to put up with it.

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